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While Teach for America teachers make impact, there just isn

TFA teachers helps to reverse educational inequity

If Hank Bounds had his way, Mississippi would have 1,000 new Teach For America (TFA) recruits in classrooms this fall.

“Teach For America is one of the best investments our state can make, and growing Teach For America is a must-do,” said Bounds, state superintendent of education. “Teach For America not only helps schools, they are vital in assisting and helping the communities in which they teach.”

TFA signs outstanding recent college graduates to two-year teaching commitments in urban and rural public schools in impoverished communities. Since being established in 1990, the TFA network has grown to include 20,000 professionals, with 6,000 TFA corps members teaching in 29 high-poverty areas.

Ron Nurnberg, executive director of the TFA-Delta Region covering 10 districts in Mississippi and six in Arkansas, would dearly love to meet Bounds’ recruiting challenge. “The need is there because of the overall shortage of qualified teachers,” he said. “This is true all over the state, but the need is especially dire in the Delta for math, science and foreign language teachers at all levels.”

Last year, TFA received a record number of 25,000 applicants, yet only 3,700 corps members were selected. At press time, more than 40,000 college graduates had applied to the program, with a Feb. 13 deadline. Nurnberg attributes the application spike to the economic slowdown and the program’s reputation. BusinessWeek calls TFA one of the “Best Places to Launch a Career.”

“We brought in 86 new teachers last year, but that didn’t make a dent in the request from the school districts of 425 positions,” said Nurnberg, who expanded the Delta corps from 32 members in 1996 to 156 in 2006. “If we could bring in 1,000 a year, I wouldn’t have any trouble placing them — and that’s just for the Delta.”

Limited funding is the primary reason why there is such a gap between the number of applicants and corps members selected. The non-profit organization operates with private contributions, ranging from $5, $10 and $15 individual checks, to more sizable contributions from folks such as movie star Morgan Freeman, to magnanimous gifts like the nearly $1 million pledged to the David Halberstam Endowment Fund. Former Gov. William Winter, a staunch supporter of education in Mississippi, led the endowment fundraising campaign in memory of writer and journalist David Halberstam.

Halberstam’s daughter lived and taught as part of the Teach for America program for two years in Greenville.

TFA’s projected operating budget for FY 2008 is $120 million. Some $20,000 is invested in recruiting and training each new TFA member, who must plow through a battery of tests before being accepted into the program. Because most applicants are not education majors, they must complete a boot camp of sorts the summer before they begin their assignment. Teaching salaries are paid through a combination of public and private funds. States provide alternative routes for licensure for corps members.

“Next year, we hope to have approximately 280 corps members in Mississippi, and 380 the following year,” said Nurnberg, an Iowa native with a business administration degree who tired of running a pub in the cold weather of Missouri. Lured by The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, he relocated to the state in 1993. A TFA colleague who served as executive director of the Delta region encouraged him to apply for the job.

Michael Cormack, a Boston College graduate from Portland, Oreg., joined TFA in 2003 as a stepping stone to law school. While serving his two-year commitment in Clarksdale, Cormack met his future wife, Krystal, a fellow TFA corps member. Like many recruits that remain past their two-year commitment, the couple settled in Clarksdale. And like two-thirds of TFA recruits, they remained in education.

“Coming here has made one of the biggest impacts on my life,” admitted Cormack. “Having studied political science, I was sure teaching would be a detour, and I would move on. I came to the Delta straight out of college and teaching really lit a spark. There’s such a great need in the Delta for people who are enthusiastic and have the desire and energy to close the achievement gap. There are so many disparities between the education that students in the Delta receive, as opposed to other areas.”

Cormack was also attracted to the program because the TFA model requires corps members to set ambitious goals. “Mine was to make two years’ reading progress for my students in a single year,” he said. “Through the resources of the program and by working relentlessly and purposefully, we were able to meet that goal.”

Nurnberg urges the business community to rally around the TFA effort. “We’re seeing great things happen in the classroom,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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