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Officials Say More Diversity Among Recruits Would Boost Teach For America

In Teach For America’s quest to become “bigger and better,” leaders of the organization on Monday said they also recognize the need to make the alternative teacher preparation program more diverse.

“When we think about getting bigger and better, there’s no more crucial aspect of our work than becoming more diverse and representative of the communities that we’re serving,” said Wendy Kopp, CEO and founder of Teach For America, an organization that secures two-year commitments from recent college graduates to teach in “high-need” urban and rural public schools.

Kopp—joined by other members of her management team and board member Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund—made her remarks Monday during a conference call with reporters.

No one on the call mentioned any specific criticism of Teach for America and its success—or lack thereof—in diversifying America’s teacher ranks. But the fact that the organization is cognizant of certain perceptual challenges it faces was reflected in the themes included in materials that announced the event, such as “Setting the Record Straight” and “National Leaders to Share the Truth about Teach For America.”

The conference was bereft of any groundbreaking study or report that shows Teach for America has embarked upon some sort of elixir for the country’s overall lack of teacher diversity—a problem that has persistently plagued public education in the United States since the era of desegregation.

The phone conference largely consisted of facts and figures that could be gleaned from the Teach For America web site.

Like public education itself, Teach For America is predominantly made up of White teachers.

According to the organization, 65 percent of its teacher corps is Caucasian, 12 percent is African-American, 8 percent is Latino, and 6 percent is Asian American.

Aimee Eubanks Davis, executive vice president, People, Community and Diversity at Teach for America, said that, among new hires at the organization, 18 percent are African-American and 13 percent are Latino.

In the next five years, she said, the organization plans to increase those figures so that roughly half its teachers are people of color.

The diversity at Teach For America is significantly better than it is for public education overall, where 84 percent of the teachers are Caucasian, 7 percent are Black, and 6 percent are Hispanic, according to the 2011 Profile of Teachers in the United States, by the National Center for Education Information.

Still, critics say the organization is not diverse enough.

Dr. Leslie T. Fenwick, dean of the Howard University School of Education, noted that HBCUs produce 50 percent of the nation’s African-American teachers and that many HBCUs have had programs designed to recruit more African-Americans, particularly Black men, into the teaching profession for three decades.

“The point of referencing these data is that TFA (Teach For America) has not had the unrivaled track record of contributing African-American and Hispanic/Latino teachers to the nation’s schools,” Fenwick told Diverse. “Consequently, TFA’s efforts and recommendations cannot be informed by expert knowledge and a track record of successful experience.

“TFA’s leadership is more likely working on hunches. Well meaning as TFA might be, the nation needs HBCU- and HSI-based experts to address this problem.”

Teach For America officials say they are working with HBCUs and HSIs to do just that.

At the same time, TFA officials say they tend to recruit top students from the few hundred top-tier schools, as listed in the annual rankings of US News & World Report, where they noted that only 5 percent of graduating seniors from such schools are Latino and only 5 percent are African-American. Until the student bodies at the nation’s top colleges and universities become more diverse, they said, there’s only so much Teach For America can do.

Beyond facts and figures, Teach For America officials who participated in the conference spent significant time using anecdotes and the power of personal biography to illustrate the organization’s commitment to diversity, as reflected in its statement on the importance of diversity.

Among those who spoke is Kwame Griffith, senior vice president for regional operations at Teach For America.

Griffith shared various efforts Teach For America is making to recruit more Black teachers, such as outreach at Morehouse and Spelman, and recounted his own experience as a Black male teacher in Houston’s Fifth Ward.

“Many Black boys looked up to me as a Black male instructor,” Griffith said.

Lomax, the UNCF president, spoke of how he became involved on the board at Teach For America during his tenure as president of Dillard University in New Orleans. During that time, he said, he witnessed many students come out of New Orleans public schools ill-prepared for college, and he observed how Teach For America was dedicated to stopping that from happening.

Since joining the board at Teach For America more than a decade ago, Lomax said, he has worked with the organization’s national team to increase recruiting among African-Americans with a focus on HBCUs. UNCF directly supports 38 private HBCUs.

Lomax said TFA’s commitment to ending inequities in public education “has turned campuses like Spelman and Howard and now Morehouse, my alma mater, into some of the most robust resources of (TFA) corps members imaginable.”

Even though TFA only requires its teachers to make a two-year commitment to teaching in public schools, organization officials said, many alumni go on to work in education policy or launch schools themselves.

To illustrate this point, Lomax spoke of a commencement speech he gave recently at KIPP Charter School in Helena, Ark., in what he described as the economically-ravaged Mississippi Delta.

Of the 24 graduating seniors, 23 of whom were African-American, he said, all were leaving high school “fully prepared for college.”

“The point I’d make about them is this school was founded by a Teach For America alum,” Lomax said.

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