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D-2: Head of the class 

Derrick Ward gets up around 5:30 every morning. Class starts at 7:18. "And I teach all day long," he says. Five classes. He works in the cafeteria during lunch. After school, he is the assistant coach on the debate team. He works on the advisory board for the newspaper.

"I get out anywhere between 4 and 5," Ward says, "head home, start working on planning and stuff for the next day or next week, grade papers, try to catch some Mad Men and go to sleep."

And this, his second year as a high school teacher in Harrison School District 2, has been mellower; his first year, he says, he averaged 80 to 90 hours a week.

It's a life familiar to any young teacher, but Ward didn't come to it through the traditional route. He had graduated from Cornell University with a philosophy degree and was working for a Manhattan law firm when he was accepted by Teach for America, an elite nationwide "teacher corps" that places ambitious college graduates in underperforming schools hoping to, as TFA's website states, "break the cycle of educational inequity."

The program allows recent grads to skip the two years of formal education required of certified teachers, instead putting them through a five-week boot camp to qualify for an alternative teaching license. Then these young people, like Ward, sign a two-year commitment and go into participating districts to toil alongside certified teachers.

This corps of idealistic over-achievers has attracted a politically diverse legion of proponents, from President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, to the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable institution built upon the fortune amassed by Wal-Mart. Providing a steady supply of compelling young scholars who've put careers on hold to teach in the poorest neighborhoods, TFA has also become a darling of the media.

And yet, the 20-year-old program is not universally lauded. A new study questions the members' readiness to teach, ostensibly backing up the thoughts of people like Kevin Marshall, president of Colorado Springs Education Association (which represents District 11 teachers).

"Just because someone has a degree and then is given a cursory teacher preparation program and then dropped into a classroom," Marshall says, "doesn't mean that they are going to be effective. At least in my mind."

High-level interest

Teach for America, with an 8,200-member corps serving 39 communities across the country, takes fewer than 10 percent of its applicants. According to the Daniels Fund, one of TFA's Colorado-based supporters, "At more than 130 colleges and universities, more than 5 percent of the senior class applied, including 7 percent at Colorado College and 11 percent of all seniors at Ivy League universities."

"You gotta be very committed to it, and they can feel that," says Ward. "I knew a lot of people, when the banks crashed, that were planning to go to Wall Street, and started applying to Teach for America instead. And somehow they filtered them. Somehow they can tell who is really real about it."

Members are paid by the school district that they work for, on the same pay scale as their certified colleagues. TFA members can also earn other perks, including loan forbearance during their two-year stint, as well as an AmeriCorps financial award of $5,000 a year. They also can qualify for up to $25,000 in scholarships for graduate school.

The program came to Colorado in 2007, says state executive director Sean VanBerschot, and has placed 267 members in seven impoverished communities, including 67 in D-2.

Different perspectives

This year alone, TFA placed 42 teachers in the district — well more than 30 percent of its new hires. TFA charged Harrison an average of $1,750 per teacher, says VanBerschot, much less than the average cost to a district for recruitment.

"What they bring," says David MacKenzie, a director in human resources with D-2, "is the philosophy that all students of poverty have a right to the same education as anyone else and can achieve as anyone else. That really connects well with Harrison."

Mike Stahl, executive director of the Pikes Peak Education Association, praises TFA teachers. But Stahl, whose organization represents more than a quarter of D-2's teachers, has questioned the bold and controversial moves that have made D-2 popular with the education reform movement the past couple years. In a district that's shedded scores of veteran teachers yearly in the name of reform, he sees a flipside to the growing reliance on TFA.

"I think that it is a way to cut expenditures," he says. "I think that it is a way to get new, compliant blood in the program. You get these recent college graduates and they are ready to work 16-hour days, every day. And that is what the district wants. People with families want to go home and spend time with their families."

For years, studies trumpeted TFA's benefits, claiming the teachers exceed, or at least match, the effectiveness of their certified counterparts. Yet this summer, a paper by Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas and Su Jin Jez of California State University, received widespread attention for arguing that "TFA teachers appear less effective in both reading and mathematics than fully prepared entrants teaching similar students, at least until the TFA teachers become prepared and certified themselves."

"While the small number who stay this long are sometimes found to be more effective in mathematics than other teachers," the report continued that, while only 20 percent of TFA members stay after the third year, "few students receive the benefit of this greater effectiveness, while districts pay the costs of high attrition." According to studies promoted by TFA, 44 percent stay in their teaching placements for a third year.

Most alarming to critics, the study claimed "TFA has begun placing teachers not in positions lacking qualified candidates, but in slots previously held by veteran teachers — that is, in districts using layoffs to ease budget problems. The practice of laying off experienced teachers and replacing them with inexperienced TFA teachers — or of laying off people to accommodate Teach for America — has been reported in Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.), Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., among other cities."

Those reports, though, clearly don't have the staying power of the success stories. Take Colorado Springs native Blake Hammond, a Colorado College graduate in his second year with TFA, teaching fourth-grade math in Greenwood, Miss. Last year, Hammond was honored by colleagues as his school's teacher of the year. His students' standardized test scores, he says, were the highest in the school.

"That really lets me know that a Teach for America person, who hasn't had much formal training, can be an excellent thing," Hammond says.

The experience has had such a positive impact on him, Hammond says, he has already signed up for his third year. And instead of one day becoming a lawyer, he now wants to be a principal.

"It starts at the top," he says, "and if we can get things changed at the top, then it can trickle down."

chet@csindy.com

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