Teach For America contract faces skeptical Pittsburgh School Board members

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A Teach for America representative faced some pointed questioning by Pittsburgh school board members following a presentation on the school district's plan to bring in up to 30 new teachers from the program next year to take hard-to-fill jobs at some of the city's most challenging schools.

The outgoing school board voted 6-3 last month to approve a contract with Teach for America, despite a petition asking them to delay the decision until four new members were sworn in.

However, the contentious contract, which has drawn fire from city teachers and some board members, could come up again.

Either a new board member or returning board member Mark Brentley Sr., who voted in favor of the contract even though he is opposed so he could call for a new vote, could bring the matter up anew, schools solicitor Ira Weiss said.

That gave Wednesday night's presentation by Nicole Brisbane, a former Teach for America teacher and the managing director for new site development, the air of a sales pitch more than an informational briefing for new board members.

Ms. Brisbane called the program a "perfect partnership for Pittsburgh Public Schools" that puts "students first, not adults."

But several board members challenged the rationale for bringing in Teach for America candidates, which Superintendent Linda Lane said would increase diversity among the district's teachers and provide passionate young educators in some of its toughest teaching environments.

The district will pay the teachers, who will be union members and go through the same application and interview process as other hires, though the $5,000-per-teacher fee charged by Teach for America will be covered by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In a highly competitive process, Teach for America recruits and screens college graduates, typically without education training, and gives them five weeks of training at a national institute and some local orientation and professional development before sending them off to classroom assignments. It also provides on-the-job coaching for the TFA teachers, who make a two-year commitment.

Board member Regina Holley was intensely skeptical of claims that the young teachers would be ready to tackle Pittsburgh's toughest schools after less than two months of training.

"I find that a bit outrageous," she said, also questioning why previous efforts to bolster teacher diversity and partner with local universities had fallen by the wayside. "This is the first time we're hearing of this major-type effort that the district has put forth."

Ms. Brisbane and the superintendent also fielded questions about whether the TFA candidates will have state certifications, whether they will be subject to teacher evaluations and whether a two-year commitment was enough to make a difference, among others.

The TFA teachers must be evaluated and have to pass the relevant state Praxis exam, they said.

Mr. Brentley, who has called the plan an "attempt to break organized labor," drew applause from teachers and others attending the meeting when he said the school district doesn't do a good enough job of hiring qualified applicants off its own substitute list and retaining existing teachers, managing the application process or reaching out to minority job candidates.

After the presentation, Ms. Brisbane said the young teachers' real-time, on-the-job coaching would help compensate for the lack of experience and added that they would fill vacancies for which the school district gets one or no applications.

"The truth is, they're hard-to-staff schools for a reason," she said, adding that about 60 percent of Teach for America participants stay in education beyond their two-year commitment. A board reversal on the contract, she said, would be a "loss for the students."

However, Anna Tarka-DiNunzio, a second-grade teacher at Phillips Elementary and a teachers' union executive board member, called the program "a disaster waiting to happen."

"We feel that teachers with no experience is the last thing our district needs," she said.

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.

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