Emily Abeles says she probably wouldn’t have gotten into teaching had she not signed up with Teach For America as part of the organization’s first cohort in Memphis in 2006.
A Knoxville native, she’s stayed in Memphis ever since and works today as a reading intervention specialist at Westside Achievement Middle School, operated by the state-run Achievement School District in the Frayser community.
Marking its 10th year in Memphis, Teach For America is one of a handful of alternative teacher training programs that help feed the pipeline of educators into schools operated by Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District and charter schools authorized by the local district.
The nonprofit organization, which places college graduates in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, has 293 recruits working in Memphis this school year, compared with 48 its first year. And the training has evolved to meet the needs of the city’s challenging teaching environment.
“We focused on mostly academic goals at first,” Abeles said of the first cohort’s efforts. “Now I’m seeing first years with much larger and more ambitious visions for their students. They’re thinking more holistically with their students.”
The number of Memphis recruits is down from the organization’s peak of 340 in 2014, a decrease that leaders attribute to the economy’s recovery and college students finding more lucrative job offers upon graduation.
The recruiting organization expects about 260 new teachers next school year, about half of whom will teach in Shelby County Schools if the school board votes Tuesday night to approve a contract to pay the organization up to $650,000, or $5,000 for each teacher placed.
Since 2009, the cost was covered by the $90 million grant awarded to the local Memphis district from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for teacher effectiveness initiatives. This year, as the grant money dries up and the district faces an estimated shortfall of more than $70 million, its funding is less certain.
With the Gates money, “it was easy because that money was earmarked” for teacher effectiveness efforts, said school board Chairwoman Teresa Jones, adding that TFA recruits provide a “great value” and fill hard-to-staff positions. But facing a budget deficit, “we’re approving something without knowing what we’ll have to give up to have it,” she said.
Board member Stephanie Love notes that the school district is struggling to care for its own hires and create a balanced budget. “We have a (staff) shortage, that’s true,” Love said. “I just really think we should lift our morale in house and we may not have to worry about contracting with an organization to bring in more teachers as we are now.”
Teach For America has long faced criticism for fast-tracking young idealists into the classroom, giving them a summer of intensive preparation rather than the years of coursework that teachers who graduate from education schools typically take.
But traditional teacher colleges have not supplied the number of educators that districts like Shelby County Schools need, while alternative programs have become more mainstream nationally to feed districts that serve high-need students.
In Memphis, TFA’s track record includes a number of high-profile alumni.
Of the original 48-member cohort, 10 TFA recruits still work in the city, including Tim Ware, executive director of ASD-operated Achievement Schools, and Athena Turner, who now oversees TFA in Memphis. In addition, Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for Shelby County Schools and a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet, was the first regional executive director of TFA in Memphis.
“There’s an undying desire to make Memphis the absolute best place to live in the world,” Ware said of why he stayed. “There’s a lot of energy that I love to be a part of.”
Ware was one of only three black teachers in the inaugural cohort and the only one who was not straight out of college. Since then, the organization has sought to attract recruits that are more diverse in ethnicity and background, as well as provide more training on understanding the culture of its students.
Ware cites the professional development he received through TFA for putting him on the fast track to a leadership role. “The non-stop training and development TFA provided me, it really sharpened my sword and really quickened my pace more than I’ve seen in other contexts,” he said.
Turner says the percentage of recruits continuing to teach in Memphis after their two-year commitment has steadily grown. About 64 percent of teachers from the 2013 cohort stayed on for this year, she said.
Across Tennessee, about 9 percent of teachers trained in Tennessee last year came from alternative programs similar to TFA.