Teach For America, an acclaimed and controversial program that trains top college graduates to teach in high-poverty schools for two years, no longer will be coming to the Richmond Public Schools this fall.
Between the demand for the teaching corps members from its current school partners and a drop in its recruitment projections, Teach for America can no longer expand into Richmond, Eva Colen, its managing director of community engagement and new site development, says in an email.
“Along with other teacher preparation programs," Colen says, "we are experiencing a difficult recruitment environment with multiple contributing factors, including an improving economy that has led prospects to turn away from public service and toward fields they perceive as more financially stable."
Teach for America recruits top-achieving college graduates from across the nation, gives them intensive training during the summer and places them in struggling schools. The Richmond Public Schools, which typically hires around 300 teachers each year, had planned to hire 30 Teach for America corps members in its middle and high schools at a cost of $5,000 per teacher. The district could have applied for reimbursement for the entire cost from the state. The hope was to place them in particularly high-need subject areas like math and English as a second language.
The district faces a chronic shortage of teachers and started the 2014-'15 school year with around 60 open positions, says School Board member Kristen Larson, who strongly supported bringing in the teaching corps members.
Colen, a Virginia native and long-time program member, began working to expand the organization into Richmond in 2012. She lobbied the General Assembly for the Teach For America Act of 2013, which allowed program participants to receive a two-year provisional teaching license with the opportunity to extend the license for a third year.
Richmond’s proposal to partner with the program provoked protest -- largely by supporters of traditional education programs -- over the level of preparation and commitment of Teach for America teachers. The Richmond School Board eventually voted 5-2 in favor of bringing the program to the city in the 2015-2016 school year.
School Board member Tichi Pinkney Eppes, who serves the 9th District, was disappointed with the decision to pull back. The school system, which serves about 24,000 students, is dealing with many of the problems associated with urban education, including a high dropout rate and a higher-than-average percentage of core academic classes in high-poverty schools with teachers teaching outside their area of expertise.
“It’s not real easy to come into the inner city and teach in addition to some of the challenges we face,” Eppes says. Teach for America “specifically trains the individuals to do so. We’re trying to build a better school district.”
But Jacqueline McDonnough, associate professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education and a vociferous critic of Teach for America, was pleased by the news.
“I would like to see more energy into keeping the teachers we have in our classrooms currently,” McDonnough says. “They’re not given proper support.”
Colen says Richmond would continue to be a priority area for Teach for America and that the hope is to reconnect with the Richmond Public Schools once recruitment is higher than demand. Also she says that pledges from donors to cover the ancillary costs of the nonprofit's expansion into Richmond have been returned.
Caroline Utz is a staff writer for The Collegian at the University of Richmond, where a version of this article first appeared.