Teach for America is either a great opportunity to place dedicated, passionate people in schools where they're desperately needed or a temporary fix that throws inexperienced people into classrooms and does nothing to help students learn. Or both.
As Diette Courrégé reported last week, Charleston County School Board members approved a $240,000 plan to bring up to 30 Teach for America corps members into the district in the next two years.
Getting people into the classroom can be a challenge. Getting people into classrooms in poor or rural areas can be nearly impossible. Throw in the Corridor of Shame and South Carolina's less-than-stellar high school graduation rate, and you can start to see why we might need alternative programs like this one.
Nobody wants to think about this, but not all schools and districts have the same luck attracting experienced, enthusiastic teachers. (Yes, there are some teachers out there who will willingly go wherever the need is greatest.)
Reasons abound: Lack of affordable housing for people just starting out in their careers, student loan repayments, or family or child care considerations. Some may feel they've already put in their time, early in their careers, at rural or under-performing schools.
Those who might be quick to judge should look carefully in the mirror. With 15 or 20 years into a chosen profession -- for those lucky enough to maintain a singular career path for that long -- would you take a challenging but less desirable position?
The help is needed
So, what you get with Teach For America is this: a two-year commitment from somebody who wants to be there. Corps members in South Carolina who decide to teach for a third year and take additional courses can obtain a professional teaching certificate or master's degree through Francis Marion University.
Retention levels post-program are admittedly not great. According to a 2010 study, more than 50 percent of teachers in the program leave after their two-year commitment ends, and more than 80 percent leave after three years. That still leaves up to 20 percent of corps members who continue teaching, people who might not have otherwise gone into teaching.
The same study also suggests that students and schools may be better off with a five-year commitment from Teach for America corps members. A five-year commitment from traditionally prepared teacher candidates would probably accomplish a lot, too, but might also be difficult to obtain.
One disturbing trend documented in some districts is the practice of laying off veteran teachers in favor of staffing their slots with Teach for America candidates. That's no different than laying off veteran teachers in favor of hiring more inexpensive first-year certified teachers, and it's wrong-headed in both cases.
The program has already had success in other parts of the state, so the school district should be commended for trying it here as well.
The schools could certainly use the help.
Reach Digital Editor Melanie Balog at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5565.