GRPS debates partnering with Teach For America

A meeting of the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education. (Feb. 9, 2015)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools wants the district to consider partnering with Teach For America — a controversial move that was batted down three years ago.

A proposal to partner with Teach For America, which trains recent college graduates and places them in underprivileged school districts, didn’t get any traction three years ago when GRPS announced its Transformation Plan. At the time, the board didn’t support it and neither did the teachers union.

Monday, Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal again asked the school board to approve a partnership that would provide 10 to 15 Teach For America teachers for five schools on the southeast side. Neal said Campus Elementary, Dickinson Elementary, Alger Middle School, Martin Luther King Leadership Academy and Ottawa Hills High School typically have a problem  filling some teaching positions, especially for math, science, Spanish and special education.

“I am asking for the support of this,” she told board members during a special meeting. “I do think it is the right thing to do and I would like the board’s support.”

She wanted board members to either approve or vote down the issue at the meeting, but they ended up tabling it by a vote of 7-2 after more than an hour of discussion.

Dr. Tony Baker, president of the board, said he thought the measure needed more information and public “vetting.”

“To bring in Teach For America is a politically charged decision, whether you like it or not, so that’s something we need to consider,” board member Dr. Wendy Falb said during the discussion.

“I want to register that I’m opposed to Teach For America I find it offensive to the profession,” board member Maureen Slade said.

She added that she understands the district is in a tough position when it comes to filling open positions with dedicated professionals, and so she is willing to listen to arguments that oppose her current position.

GRPS is in need of more qualified teachers. It currently uses long-term substitutes to fill gaps. Neal would rather fill those spots with some Teach For America participants, who all have college degrees, on two-year contracts.

“I think that has to be one of the options. We’re looking at several strategies, I don’t think there is a silver bullet to everything, but I do want the board to consider all options. We are trying to close the achievement gap, and do what’s best for children,” said Neal. “It’s not OK to have warm bodies in a classroom. I need highly qualified people.”

But opponents argue that people in Teach For America often didn’t go to school for education, and many don’t have any intention to stay in the profession after their two-year agreement is finished.

24 Hour News 8 asked if a college graduate with the program would be better than a sub with less training. Current substitute teachers who fill positions for less than 90 days require 90 hours of college credit, which is less than an associate’s degree. A sub who teaches for longer than 90 days must have a bachelor’s degree or pass state-approved content or teacher certification tests.

“I don’t know if we have subs with less training. We have a lot of subs who graduated from college, and these young people are the same thing. And I wish them the best in their endeavors but we are in the business of providing the highest quality education we can in Grand Rapids,” Slade told 24 Hour News 8.

Mary Bouwense, the president of the Grand Rapids Education Association, told 24 Hour News 8 over the phone Monday night that she was surprised the issue had come up again and that the union remains very much opposed to it.

“I’m disturbed that they would think that someone with five weeks of summer training would be a highly qualified teacher,” said Bouwense. “Our kids don’t need more inexperienced people.”

The GREA signed a contract with GRPS before right-to-work took effect in Michigan in 2013. That contract will expire this year, but Neal said that had no bearing on her decision to again bring up Teach For America.

“You know, honest to God, I have not given that any thought. You know children and parents, they don’t care about that stuff, so that never, ever, ever crossed my mind in trying to do what’s best for these children,” Neal said.

Neal said that Teach For America isn’t a sole solution the district’s problem of finding teachers, but is instead just one way to help deal with it.

The Monday meeting also outlined other efforts the district is making to find qualified teachers, including looking out of state, going to many more teacher career fairs and offering temporary contracts on the spot.

Neal said that if the board votes against Teach For America this time, she will not bring it up again.

“I think it’s important that we move forward,” she said. “We have been looking at this for the last three years, and I am not the kind of superintendent to stay stuck on any one thing, and I think if the board chooses not to do it I need to know that so I can move forward.”

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