Teach for America struggling for support in Minn.

TFA teacher
Stacey Weizeorick teaches math to St. Paul City School students on June 26, 2013. Weizeorick said ongoing support from Teach for America advisers helped her through two years of teaching at the charter in the St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Dozens of Teach for America members wrapped up their summer training program this week in the Twin Cities and Friday many will find out if they will be given a classroom to lead in the fall.

For that to happen, the Minnesota Board of Teaching must decide to allow the trainees to teach without a license, letting them earn full certification while on the job.

In previous year, Teach for America has easily obtained the variances. But the national organization is having a harder time in Minnesota this year. The state teachers union and others are questioning how well Teach for America prepares its trainees for the classroom.

Teach for America officials are confident that their trainees are prepared and ready to teach following five weeks student teaching this summer in Oklahoma.

"I think this group is among the best prepared and strongest right out of the gate in terms of what I saw them doing with their kids over the summer," said Crystal Brakke, executive director of Teach for America in the Twin Cities.

Trainee class
Teach for America trainees attended one of their final classroom lectures in Minneapolis this week. They're preparing to take over their own classrooms in the Twin Cities this fall. Many of the trainees are waiting to find out if the Minnesota Board of Teaching will grant them a variance to teach without a license.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Their training will continue even as teach their own students. After two years of training and working in an urban school, Teach for America members can apply for a full Minnesota teaching license.

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It's not the typical route for a Minnesota teacher, but that's the whole idea behind Teach for America.

The program is designed to help people with a bachelor's degree who didn't set out to become teachers find a way into the classroom, without spending another year to earn a teaching degree.

The organization contends its method is a good way to place a smart, energetic and more diverse teaching workforce into the classroom, and one of the best ways to tackle an achievement gap that has left many of the state's students of color trailing their white counterparts on standardized tests.

But not everyone agrees an alternative route into teaching is a good idea.

The state's teachers union, Education Minnesota, is strongly opposed to the group's methods.

"When you have somebody on your team that you're worried about -- whether they're prepared or whether they have the tools that are necessary to do well -- that's a concern to everyone," union president Denise Specht said.

"When you have somebody on your team that you're worried about -- whether they're prepared or whether they have the tools that are necessary to do well -- that's a concern to everyone,"

Some education reform groups claim the union's dislike of Teach for America explains Gov. Mark Dayton's decision to veto $1.5 million of funding for the group this spring.

After his veto, Dayton explained his decision in a letter, noting that Teach for America in fiscal 2011 reported its revenues nationwide exceeded its expenses by more than $50 million. With those financial resources, Dayton said he did not understand why the program needed a state grant.

Teach for America and its supporters, however, contend the governor did so as a favor to the union, one of his biggest supporters. They also claim the union's position led the Minnesota Board of Teaching to deny a group of 48 license variances for Teach for America in June, and three individual variances in July.

Several members of the state board are Education Minnesota members.

Among them is Ryan Vernosh, a teacher trainer in the St. Paul district who was named Minnesota's teacher of the year in 2010.

But Vernosh said the board isn't holding Teach for America trainees to a tougher standard than anyone else. On the contrary, he said, the board is taking a hard look at any request to teach without a license.

With that in mind, Vernosh said, the board must ask specific questions to determine if a variance is warranted.

"What are the individual cases?" he asked. "What are the needs for schools that show an express need to have a non-licensed teacher working with our kids."

One of the variance requests will be for Paula Cole, already hired by Minneapolis Public Schools to teach first grade at a Spanish immersion school.

The 31-year old can't start her job, however, until the board of teaching decides on her variance request.

That's nerve-racking for her and her colleagues.

"I am worried for me and I'm worried for them," Cole said. "But I'm also hopefully optimistic that it will all work out in the end."

The board of teaching's decision will likely come down to whether the schools that want to hire unlicensed Teach for America members would not be able to fill the same position with a licensed teacher.

That's fairly easy to prove for hard-to-fill classroom spots, like special education and language immersion, but a difficult case to make for many other teaching positions.