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Originally published March 8, 2012 at 9:50 PM | Page modified March 9, 2012 at 6:15 PM

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Teach for America's rocky first year

It's been a rocky first year for the Puget Sound branch of Teach for America, but principals say the first TFA teachers are performing well.

Seattle Times education reporter

Facts about Teach for America

Origins: Established in 1989 as a way to find enthusiastic teachers for hard-to-fill positions in low-income schools, Teach for America recruits mostly young college graduates who did not major in education.

How it works: TFA members go through the normal school or district hiring process and are paid by the districts the same rate as other beginning teachers. They usually become part of any local teachers union. Before entering the classroom, they receive five weeks of coaching; after that, they are mentored by TFA staffers and must enroll in a teacher certification program for their first year of teaching.

Seattle TFA members: Three Aki Kurose Middle teachers (two in language arts/social studies, one in math), a fourth-grade teacher at South Shore K-8, a Spanish teacher at Rainier Beach High and a special-education teacher at Washington Middle.

Federal Way TFA members: Mostly math and science teachers at middle and high schools; one elementary English Language Learner teacher. A seventh teacher resigned in October for personal reasons.

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Kenneth Maldonado's students have no idea he is a member of Teach for America.

If his fourth-graders heard the name of the organization, "They'd probably ask, 'What's a Teach for America?' " speculated Keisha Scarlett, principal of Seattle's South Shore K-8, where Maldonado teaches.

The distinction doesn't mean much to Maldonado either, he said. Like other South Shore teachers, he's focused on the grueling job at hand.

But unlike his colleagues, Maldonado, 24, has had to teach while facing personal attacks on blogs, a lawsuit to get him out of the classroom and an overwhelming number of public-records requests scrutinizing how he came to be hired.

It's been a rocky first year for the Puget Sound branch of Teach for America, an organization that since 1989 has placed thousands of high-performing recent college graduates without teaching credentials in some of the country's lowest-performing schools for two-year stints.

The national group's move into the Pacific Northwest has been slow — the Seattle and Federal Way school districts each have six TFA teachers this first year — and contentious.

Earlier this week, three Seattle School Board members introduced a motion to sever the district's fledgling partnership with TFA. And while the move is almost certain to fail due to swing vote Kay Smith-Blum and three other members, it illustrates how tumultuous the year has been for TFA, a group that is accustomed to opposition but has never before seen as much of it as in Seattle.

The blowback has come from traditionalists, teachers unions and their supporters, who worry about the inexperienced recruits taking positions from longtime educators.

Yet school officials in both Seattle and Federal Way say the TFA teachers are succeeding in the classroom, and TFA leaders say they are preparing to expand to three more area districts next year.

School and TFA officials insist the controversy has not hindered the efforts of TFA or its teachers here, but their sensitivity to it is apparent.

Principals who supervise the Seattle TFA teachers declined to let reporters visit those classrooms or even talk to the teachers, citing their need to focus on teaching.

Focus on students

In Federal Way, where the debate is not as hot, 23-year-old TFA teacher Jordan Keller said he's focused only on his students.

On a recent school day, as he led fourth- and fifth-grade English Language Learner students through the concept of using a web diagram to illustrate character traits, his enthusiasm for the job was obvious.

"It doesn't matter what path you took" into teaching, said Kristi White, principal at Silver Lake Elementary, one of two schools where Keller works, after observing the lesson. "It's the person. It's always the person."

Keller is typical of TFA members: He performed well at a private college, Spokane's Whitworth University, where he majored in liberal arts and picked up a passion for closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

TFA supporters say young people like Keller are great assets for diverse schools but would otherwise not end up in the classroom because of their inability or unwillingness to go through an expensive, multiyear teacher-certification process.

Critics counter with a simple retort: Passion is a poor substitute for training.

TFA members receive just five weeks of coaching at a summer institute before they enter the classroom. After that, they receive continual mentoring from TFA staffers and are enrolled in a university teacher certification program for their first year of teaching.

Education research clearly shows that teachers improve with experience. Studies on TFA, while mixed, appear to indicate that its teachers perform as well as other beginning teachers.

Opponents also worry about how few TFA teachers remain in the classroom. While turnover is common among all beginning teachers, it's higher among TFA members, many of whom use the experience as a springboard to the education policy world.

"They can be the greatest people in the world, but how long are they gonna be there?" said Seattle School Board member Betty Patu, one of those seeking to end the TFA contract, who noted that stability is critical for low-income students. "That's almost as important as being a great teacher."

Despite those concerns, TFA has grown to a $212 million organization that each year receives nearly 50,000 applications and this year placed about 5,000 members in 43 areas.

Local history

In the Puget Sound area, the effort to bring TFA received a push from Tom Stritikus.

The first TFA alum to become dean of a U.S. education college, Stritikus offered his school, the University of Washington, as the partner for TFA teachers' continuing certification.

Opponents had some power players of their own, including Seattle teachers union Vice President Jonathan Knapp, who led last summer's push to get the National Education Association to adopt a resolution strongly opposing TFA.

The local debate erupted in 2010 with a string of contentious School Board meetings. In the end, the Seattle and Federal Way school boards approved contracts with TFA, reasoning it couldn't hurt to expand and diversify the teacher candidate pool.

Unlike at other TFA sites, the districts did not guarantee a certain number of spots. Instead, they allowed TFA members to compete alongside other candidates during the external hiring phase last summer.

Principals of the hired TFA teachers said they've performed well, but cautioned that student test scores are not yet available and it's too early to evaluate TFA.

"It's like having to reflect on a marathon at mile 13," said Mia Williams, principal of Seattle's Aki Kurose Middle, which has three TFA teachers. "You can't do that."

Most parents at Seattle's Washington Middle are happy with their TFA teacher and think of her as the same as any other teacher, PTA co-president John Eickelberg said.

Lauren McGuire, president of the city's PTSA council, said it has not been a major issue for most parents.

Activists' reaction

The reaction from community activists has been decidedly different.

Opposition from watchdogs of Seattle Public Schools came first in the form of scathing blog posts and anti-TFA speeches at School Board meetings.

The opponents also filed about a dozen public-records requests, many asking for all TFA-related emails sent by administrators, district public-records officer Colleen Carlson said.

The activists were trying to show that officials helped TFA members get hired or that human-resource staffers had to spend extra time on them (they found evidence of the second but not the first).

The information they gained is also part of a lawsuit filed last summer over the district's agreement with TFA. A hearing on that lawsuit is scheduled for Friday.

But the most troubling incident came when the activists posted personal information about TFA teachers on a blog. Soon after, there was a burglary at one of the posted addresses. It's unlikely that there was a connection, but officials reacted angrily.

"I deplore this action in the strongest possible terms," then-Seattle School Board President Steve Sundquist said at a Nov. 16 board meeting. "The proper mechanism for registering disagreement is at the ballot box. It is not to target individual teachers."

Disagreement was registered at the ballot box, too: Sundquist was ousted in that month's School Board election by Marty McLaren, a former teacher who strongly opposes TFA. Another opponent, Sharon Peaslee, also won a seat on the board.

The launch of TFA has been smoother in Federal Way, but a TFA teacher there resigned in October, a decision that came for personal reasons but still inflamed opponents, who said it reinforced their concern about turnover.

Partnerships

The level of opposition in the Puget Sound area is unique in TFA's history, said Lindsay Hill, the region's executive director, adding that may be because of the broader debate about education reform that's also taking place here.

But she and others say the conflict has not distracted them.

In fact, TFA is finalizing partnerships with other area districts — one of which could be announced next week, Hill said.

The current agreements seem likely to expand next year as well.

Federal Way officials are happy with their TFA teachers and may bring in more of them, depending on staffing needs, district spokeswoman Diane Turner said.

And if TFA's contract with Seattle survives a School Board vote on March 21, TFA members will once again be in the hiring pool this summer.

"Clearly there are going to be people that disagree with what we do," senior district official Holly Ferguson said of the controversy. "But at the end of the day, we and our school board need to do what's best for our students."

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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