News & Features » News and Features

Teach for Richmond?

A school district plan to hire teachers with provisional licenses sparks a backlash.


The Richmond School Board wants to work with a national program that places bright but inexperienced teachers in local schools. But critics are mobilizing against the idea.

The district recently announced its partnership with Teach for America, an organization that recruits top college graduates, gives them intensive training during the summer and places them in struggling schools. The school district would be charged a $5,000 per-teacher fee.

The partnership, which would be the first in the state, drew immediate fire. "I will stand with my body in front of the door before you bring these teachers here," Jacqueline McDonnough, an education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told board members at a recent meeting. She launched a petition that's received 400 signatures.

The partnership announcement has prompted questions about the district's 33-teacher shortage, as well as criticism that the board is rolling out the red carpet for a controversial national program when graduates with education degrees from local colleges are ready and eager to work in district schools.

Seth Croft, a post-master's graduate student at VCU, says he wanted to work in the Richmond Public Schools after student teaching at John Marshall High School. He didn't hear back, so he took a job in Henrico County. He was frustrated to learn of the teacher shortage in Richmond.

"In my experience there is not a lack of qualified teachers. There is a completely unqualified HR department," Croft says of the school system. "Other counties are hiring teachers first."

McDonnough, who heads a program that places science teachers into area schools, says her own application to teach in Richmond wasn't acknowledged. "They never called," she says. Only two of the students in her science program have been hired by the district in the last 11 years, she says.

McDonnough and others criticize the pairing of students most in need of high-quality teachers with recent college graduates who lack traditional training and certification, and who arrive with only five weeks of training and a two-year commitment.

But supporters — including five members of the School Board who voted to pursue the partnership — say too much is wrong with the system to avoid trying something new. The recent round of state accreditation underscored the persistent shortcomings in the district's middle and high schools. Only one middle school, Albert Hill, was fully accredited. None of the traditional comprehensive high schools received full accreditation.

Founded in 1990, Teach for America lists a roster of 11,200 teachers in 48 regions, reaching more than 750,000 children this year. A 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research, paid for by the U.S. Department of Education, found that teachers who went through the program were "more effective than other teachers in the same schools regardless of the comparison teachers' route to certification or years of teaching experience."

Teach for America was prohibited from placing its recruits in Virginia schools until the General Assembly changed state law earlier this year to offer provisional licenses tailored to the program. Eva Colen, Teach for America's state community engagement director, says many of her recruits lamented that they weren't able to work in the Richmond Public Schools.

"These are folks that really want to stay in Richmond," she says. "We're sending them elsewhere and it hurts my heart a little bit."

Colen took the partnership idea to the board just as it began grappling with its latest teacher shortage. While long-term substitutes will fill the gaps this year, both the board and Colen say the shortage points to a need for such alternative hiring sources.

The proposed agreement to hire up to 30 of Teach for America's teachers isn't a mandate, Colen says, noting that the Richmond Public Schools hires 300 new teachers each year. And each recruit would go through the same human resources process as traditionally licensed teachers.

If the program sparks more effective hiring of teachers, she says — "awesome."

But School Board member Mamie Taylor of the 5th District, who joined Shonda Harris-Muhammed of the 6th District to vote against the partnership, says she doesn't see why Richmond should pay $5,000 per teacher when other programs are free. She's also wary of introducing two-year-term recruits into classrooms.

"I don't want our children to have that inconsistency," Taylor says. "Our kids have been through enough."

School Board Chairman Jeffrey Bourne says that district is seeking private financial backing for the program's cost. While he says he's "baffled" by critics, he's asked the human resources department to begin reviewing its hiring practices. "Our HR folks got the message," he says. "We have to change the way we recruit and hire our people."

Bourne says the recruiting process should start earlier to hire teachers before they turn to neighboring districts. He says those changes would accompany hiring Teach for America recruits. "We're going to do what we can to get the best and the brightest in our classrooms," he says. "Our school system doesn't have time to do the same thing and expect different results."