Teach for America scrutinized, praised

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Shima Kaid

TEACH FOR OAKLAND: Sarah Mazzotta, a former Teach for America intern, runs an algebra class on Dec. 9. She is a strong supporter of the program, which has come under fire.

Candice Valenzuela calls Teach for America “a difficult and challenging program” with “very high standards.”
“I’m a better teacher because I went through it,” she says.
But on Sept.. 27, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that teaching interns, including those from Teach for America, cannot be considered “highly qualified” under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Valenzuela, now a fully credentialed teacher at Media Academy, is one of hundreds of teachers in the Bay Area who entered teaching through Teach for America.
Wendy Kopp, a Princeton University graduate, founded TFA in 1989 to get more teachers out into the field faster.
There are about 400 TFA interns in the Bay Area and 8,200 nationwide. Many public schools in Oakland have at least one intern on staff. The program recruits most participants while they are college seniors, trains them over the summer and places them in low-income communities.
John Affeldt is an attorney for Public Advocate, a nonprofit law firm that challenged the “highly qualified” label given to interns, because he believes it hurts low-income students. He argues that the court ruling will help students because they won’t be taught by teachers he views as unprepared and amateur.
On the TFA website the organization writes that it hopes the U.S. Department of Education will appeal the decision or that Congress will redefine “highly qualified” teachers to again include interns.
As it stands, No Child Left Behind requires any school that has a teacher who is not “highly qualified” to send out letters informing parents.
The possibility of such letters disturbs Sarah Mazzotta, a chemistry and algebra teacher at Media Academy. Last fall Media seniors voted her as the most inspiring and effective teacher while she still was in TFA and not yet credentialed.
Mazzotta thinks sending letters to parents would backfire because interns would have a harder time controlling their students, who might not consider them to be “real” teachers.
“A teacher’s first year is [already] challenging. It’s hard enough to gain credibility,” Mazzotta explained.  “[The letter] could ruin classroom culture.”
Mazzotta agrees that it is important to have “highly qualified” teachers in the classroom, but doesn’t view it as a first priority for urban school districts.
“Teach for America puts intern teachers in the classroom [who meet] the requirements to teach,” she said.
Junior Jasmine Gaines agrees.
“It really depends on the teacher,” she said. “If I have a good teacher and [the district] sends out a letter saying that they aren’t highly qualified, I would want [the district] to rethink that. If I’m learning something, I feel like they are qualified enough to teach me.”
Although Valenzuela appreciates being part of the program, she believes that most people join TFA to perform community service, not to make teaching their main career. Valenzuela says this leads to instability in the schools. Indeed, a report in USA Today shows that only 30 percent of TFA participants teach more than two years.
Last year, two of Media Academy’s TFA interns left to pursue other careers. The school has had a total of five Teach for America interns come and go over the last six years that stayed only two or three years.
Valenzuela said most TFA participants she trained with came from top universities, most from privileged backgrounds and few were minorities.
According to the TFA website, the organization is actively working to include more minorities and people with low-income backgrounds in their program, because such teachers can serve as role models to students.
The organization is appealing to  many applicants because TFA pays the interest on student loans for its members.
“[The organization] provided an affordable career change,” said Mazzotta, who joined Teach for America after an engineering career. “It was a good alternative path. TFA gave me the most support I’ve been given as a teacher.”
Even after the court ruling, it seems unlikely that the number of applicants will drop drastically.
“Teach for America has a strong reputation. It is well-known and respected,” she said. “They get millions of people involved, and I don’t see any end to it.”