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Some Advocates Question Whether CPS' Use Of Teach For America Is Worth It - Is It?

Ambriehl Crutchfield
Akshayaa Venkatakrishnan in her classroom at Dater High School.

It's the Monday before Cincinnati Public Schools are back from summer break and Akshayaa Venkatakrishnan's classroom is bare.

The only personality the room has are two bumblebee decorations hanging from the ceiling.

"My vision for this year: I want students to walk in and see themselves in science and see that there is something for them in science that excites them," she says.

At the end of the year, she says she wants her students to pass with good or excellent scores. More than passing, she wants them to see themselves working in the STEM field. Venkatakrishnan teaches various 10th and 11th grade science classes including biology, environmental science and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Gilbert A. Dater High School.

She says an intervention specialist and ESL teacher work with her to cater to students' needs.

She originally went to the University of Cincinnati to pursue an eight-year medical program. But she realized it wasn't for her. "I knew that I loved science, but I didn't want to be a doctor," Venkatakrishnan says. "Teach for America gave me an opportunity to take all the opportunities I had in science and bring it to students, so they have all of the opportunities as well."

She's been teaching at Dater since 2017 as part of the Teach for America, or TFA, program.

CPS has an annual budget of $100,000 each year for the program, which covers 20 teachers. Some education advocates are questioning how the school district uses TFA.

Of the 360 new teachers CPS hired this school year, 10 are from the program. TFA corps members have graduated with bachelor's degrees with a minimum 2.5 GPA. They didn't have to major in education, which makes some critics question their commitment.

Before teaching a class, they go through seven-and-a-half weeks of in-person training.

Cincinnati Federation of Teachers President Julie Sellers says the district needs to think about how it's spending money on hiring. "Are we getting a return on investment for our district for the number of teachers that we are hiring?" Sellers asks.

She says TFA teacher's two-year commitment may not be worth the money.

But CPS says TFA is one of the ways it recruits minority teachers and fills shortage areas like math and intervention specialists.

"If you have a math degree you have a lot of opportunities," says Lauren Worley, chief communications officer for CPS. "You're getting a lot of opportunities directed to you. Especially if you're a person of color you're getting even more."  She says the school district is competing with private companies like Procter & Gamble. 

CPS says they were interested in increasing the budget for the 2019-2020 school year to $150,000, but TFA didn't have enough qualified candidates to fill their vacant teaching positions.

CPS Director of Human Resources Paul McDole says for the past few years they've had to ramp up recruitment. They look for new teachers graduating from college, veterans in other districts, and "grow their own" by supporting paraprofessionals to get certified. That includes a minority recruitment team. 

"You have to be aggressive. You have to start early," McDole says. "If you don't have that plan, you're not going to meet the needs of the number of hires that you need for a particular school year."

The shortage of teachers pushes the district to start recruiting and hiring in November. McDole says the district likes to attract a large pool of applicants and allows school principals to decide who is hired.

"So it's not necessarily we are putting all of TFA teachers in one school or another," Worley says. "We do think it's a great opportunity where we have had a successful Teach for America grad in the school to partner them up. Because if you're someone that's new to education it's great to have a mentor or a colleague in the building whose had a similar experience to you."

TFA's goal nationally is to place college graduates in low income schools. In Cincinnati, it's not uncommon for one to be in a school like LEAP Academy, Bond Hill Academy Elementary School or Taft IT High School. The district has been partnering with TFA since 2012.

Credit Ambriehl Crutchfield / WVXU
Gilbert A. Dater High School is one of 21 schools that currently have or has had a TFA corps member.

Worley says some CPS locations might have a hard time recruiting candidates compared to a magnet school like Hyde Park's Kilgour Elementary. 

"The people we want in Cincinnati Public are people who are up for the challenge of urban education; that are up for the challenge knowing that 80% of our kids get free and reduce lunch," Worley says. "So those kids come to school with little extra challenges, but they do not come to school with less potential."

TFA teachers are paired with teaching coaches that have taught in similar schools and who assess teachers once every two weeks. They also help new teachers develop lesson plans and testing techniques. TFA emphasizes classroom lessons being relevant to student's cultural experiences.

Venkatakrishnan says as a minority teacher, it's important to connect science to culture in hopes of helping students understand the power in knowledge. "I think science can be a tool for empowerment or a tool for oppression and we've seen that throughout history," she says. "The power they hold by being able to interpret data and to understand what the results of an experiment are (help them) make those decisions for themselves.

"There's so many ways to connect it to what we know," she continues. "It’s just a matter of sometimes connecting those dots. For some of my students who might really be into makeup they might find out that some of the chemicals in their makeup are really bad for them."

She says the beauty in teaching is there's no right personality. Diverse teaching styles and backgrounds give students new learning experiences, she says. 

TFA says this year four of its 10 new teachers at CPS identify as a person of color. According to records obtained from Teach for America between 2012-2017, 24 out of 43 TFA members in Cincinnati were people of color.

Once TFA teachers complete their two years, they can compete for job openings just like other CPS applicants. Teach for America data shows that since 2012, 29 out of 43 TFA teachers at CPS have stayed after the two-year commitment. Ten TFA alumni have graduated to being principals or assistant principals this school year.

Teachers Union President Sellers says having a lot of turnover and transition can make it difficult to build strong teacher relationships in a school.

But CPS says it's been working on retention.

"That's one thing we have been working on as an organization is focusing on the retention of all of our staff," McDole says. "How we can improve that opportunity for staff to stay?"

As for Venkatakrishnan, she says she's found a home teaching at Dater. "I hope in five years I would have taught another group of 150 to 200 students each year," she says. "I hope in five years I can look back and be really proud of the impact that we made."