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Layoffs shift TFA teachers to charters

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The mass teacher layoffs this summer have driven more Teach for America corps members in Philadelphia to charters and virtually decimated their presence in District-run schools.

Most of the second-year TFA teachers were laid off by the District and only a dozen of the 145 newly-minted ones were hired, according to TFA officials. That makes fewer than 30, or 10 percent, in District schools. Five second-teachers were never laid off and 12 others were called back and accepted positions.

UPDATED: By contrast, nearly 100 of the 310 first- and second-year TFA members will be working in Renaissance turnaround charter schools, which are District schools that have been converted to charters. Seven Renaissance charters opened last year and another five, including Simon Gratz and Olney high schools, began this year.

The 12 Renaissance charter schools hired 38 of the newly minted teachers, along with 27 second-year corps members who had been laid off from regular District schools, said TFA national spokesperson Rebecca Neale. In addition, 33 second-year TFA teachers who had already been working in one of the original seven Renaissance charters are returning, she said.

UPDATED: That adds up to 98 teachers, or 32 percent of the TFA contingent in the region, which covers Philadelphia and Camden, N.J.

Neale said that as of Wednesday all but 11 of the 234 first- and second-year teachers had landed jobs in charter and alternative schools in Philadelphia and Camden, and those 11 “are interviewing where open positions exist across the city.”

Between current corps members and alumni, TFA is playing a larger role in Philadelphia’s charter networks, including Mastery, KIPP, and Young Scholars, even as its presence in the District is waning. For instance, a quarter of the Mastery teachers, and half of those at KIPP and Young Scholars are TFA alumni, Neale said. Many of their principals are also TFA alumni. Mastery and Young Scholars run Renaissance charters; KIPP does not.

“We have definitely relied on TFA,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, who said he hired 300 new teachers altogether this year. “They are a source of motivated, hard-working young people,” said Gordan. Fifty-five TFA corps members are in Mastery schools, Neale said.

Among the more than 1,200 teachers laid off by the District due to cutbacks were 85 of the 90 second-year TFA corps members.

“TFA was scrambling for positions for them, but then last week most of those people were called back,” said one second-year corps member who did not want to be identified. She said that some had taken positions they didn’t really want, but “signed contracts and can’t get their old District jobs back. It’s been an awful situation for a lot of people.”

Neale confirmed that more than the 11 were called back late in the summer, but some had taken jobs elsewhere. Corps members “were disappointed to leave their schools after a year, but their main focus is to teach wherever they’re needed most,” she said.

Philadelphia has contracted with the Teach for America, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, for the past six years to provide teachers and promises to find them positions. The contract leaves room for “flexibility based on their hiring needs,” said Neale. “Such is the current situation, in light of budget challenges and layoffs.”

Mass teacher layoffs have impacted TFA hiring before, including last year in Chicago. The Notebook could not find another case where a large district under contract with TFA hired so few new teachers from the group and laid off most of those going into their second year.

Philadelphia also hosts one of the regional summer training institutes.

TFA corps members take certification courses while teaching, many at the University of Pennsylvania.

“A lot of the people with my encouragement started looking last spring” for new positions, said James H. “Torch” Lytle, a former District administrator who teaches one of the Penn courses. “They went to charters in the Philly area or moved…a lot would have loved to stay in the schools they were in, but it was too shaky.”

TFA and its model of recruiting top college graduates for a temporary, Peace-Corps like stint in impoverished schools has become a point of contention among education reformers. Some, who favor privatization and the weakening of unions, argue that the last hired-first fired rule in most collective bargaining agreements ignores teacher effectiveness and often protects dead wood at the expense of eager young talent.

Others maintain that putting inexperienced if bright college graduates in some of the country’s most challenging assignments makes little sense and contributes to a de-professionalization of teaching.