County officials say they weren't contacted by TFA

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County officials say they weren't contacted by TFA
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Officials from two of the three West Virginia counties that a Teach For America leader said the group plans to serve say they haven’t been contacted by the organization, and one official said his county likely won’t need the program.

“I have had no contact with anyone from Teach for America, and if I had, I have a feeling their plans would have been altered,” Mingo County Schools Human Resources Director Richard Duncan wrote in an email to the Gazette-Mail after the newspaper reported over the weekend on the organization’s plans to serve his county, along with Logan and McDowell.

“Our board has been in discussions, for the past two months or so, regarding a significant round of personnel reductions planned for 2016-17, largely due to declining enrollment, ever-shrinking local tax base, and state-level budget cuts,” Duncan wrote. “Couple that with the highest unemployment in the state and we find ourselves not in need of more teachers, but in need of positions to offer our current teachers in 2016-17 so that they do not leave our area.”

Teach For America generally accepts college graduates, including those without education degrees, trains them for more than a month and gives them a one- to two-week regional orientation before placing them in struggling schools. Those in the program make a two-year commitment to teach, and are paid as full-time, beginning teachers.

Logan County Schools Superintendent Phyllis Doty, who’s been in her position three years, said neither she nor anyone in her office has been contacted.

Will Nash, the executive director of Teach For America’s Appalachia region, said he previously had contacted Randy Keathley, Mingo’s then superintendent, and Wilma Zigmond, Logan’s superintendent at that time. He said they didn’t outright oppose the program the last time he’d reached them and that they had expressed interest in learning more. Nash said he hasn’t he been in contact with the counties recently because he’s been working to get the approvals necessary to operate in West Virginia.

He previously said the group would start in West Virginia in August with only five to 15 educators total in the three counties, a number expected to grow to about 30-35 within the next five years.

He said that with West Virginia’s teacher vacancy issues, he expects there to be other counties who’d want to work with Teach For America if McDowell, Mingo and Logan don’t.

Doty said her county has a “high demand” for math, language arts and Spanish teachers but said she’d have to learn more about Teach For America before saying whether she’d support it or not. She said that after the Gazette-Mail report was published, she received calls from worried teachers and longterm substitutes and was contacted by a representative of the American Federation of Teachers union.

“They thought they were going to be replaced immediately,” Doty said. “And I told them that was not the case.”

McDowell schools Superintendent Nelson Spencer, on the other hand, said he’s had conversations off and on with Teach For America over the past three years and wants its help. He noted that, all of last school year, the county had five math positions at a middle/high school that were generally filled by a combination of short- or longterm substitutes.

“I’m sorry to say, there were times that we couldn’t even secure a substitute in those classrooms,” Spencer said.

He said he believes some Teach For America teachers could do a “very good job,” although he’d rather have a traditionally educated teacher in each classroom who is endorsed in the subject he or she is teaching.

Duncan said Mingo — which lost about 150 students this school year, meaning the state school aid funding formula will automatically reduce the amount of money it gets next school year — plans to cut as many as 20 teaching positions for next school year.

He said that while Mingo doesn’t need more teachers overall, it needs ones who are endorsed to teach specific areas. But he said there are already avenues for currently certified teachers to be retrained to teach new subjects through, for example, taking Praxis exams.

“Right now, facing what we’re facing, we don’t see a great need for their program,” Duncan said.

Nash said Teach For America doesn’t want to force its program on any county that doesn’t want it, and pointed out that the state’s new alternative teacher education policy, which could allow for the program to enter the state, has no way of forcing it on counties. He also said the group doesn’t want to work with any county that sees Teach For America as a way to replace more experienced and expensive teachers — the school aid funding formula pays teachers higher salaries based on their years of experience.

“I don’t want to work with a district if they see TFA as a cost-saving mechanism,” Nash said. “That’s the quickest way to get driven out of any state possible.”

He did say that, from his experience in Kentucky — the only state Teach For America Appalachia currently serves — school districts are often caught off guard by vacancies in generally hard-to-fill teaching positions.

Following up on a law the West Virginia Legislature passed earlier this year, the state Board of Education approved, in September, changes to policies regarding alternative teacher-education programs. The policy also opened the door for Teach For America to enter the state, but the group still has hurdles to overcome.

Contrary to some information she previously provided, state Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson said Tuesday that Teach For America couldn’t partner with the education department itself, one of the state’s eight Regional Education Service Agencies or merely an institution of higher education. She said the group would have to partner with one of the 19 four-year, in-state colleges that have state school board-approved plans for teaching professional educators. That interpretation knocks out one avenue that Nash suggested Teach For America could use to enter West Virginia: working with Delta State University, a Cleveland, Mississippi-based school that already partners with the organization.

Teachers unions oppose Teach For America. Christine Campbell, head of the West Virginia branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said her union has been getting concerned calls all week about Teach For America’s previously stated plan, and Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said he’s heard from several teachers in the three counties. Lee said the union feels what West Virginia most needs to fix its teacher vacancies is higher pay for teachers.

“All Teach for America does, and I’ve said it before, is puts a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging problem,” he said.