The Buffalo Public School system is broken. Until it is fixed, our city will never reach its potential. We believe that when half of our children are not graduating from high school, we sustain the cycle of poverty that has crippled this city for so long. This problem affects both the inner city as well as the suburbs because a strong central core is essential to the long-term health of an entire region. That is our stance and our motivation for putting together a series on the Buffalo Public School system that begins with this post and will continue over the next few months. We will be conducting a listening tour of teachers, administrators, students, parents, nonprofits, and politicians, in no particular order. We hope to paint a broader picture of the entire Buffalo Public School system and experience by letting those involved with it tell their stories from their own perspectives.
Last week, Brittany Helpard of Teach for America (TFA) Buffalo reached out to us with hopes that we could promote the fact that the organization is currently recruiting locally for teachers.
At Spot Coffee downtown, I met with Brittany, TFA Buffalo’s Operations Specialist, and Katie Campos, Managing Director. Not present was the third member of their organization, Mary Kingston, Manager of Leadership Development.
You may have heard about TFA when they were setting up shop in Buffalo in late 2013. The organization has been around for 30 years. According to Campos, they recruit extraordinary leaders from all over the country, from all walks of life, either fresh out of college from any major or mid-career professionals. The program is highly competitive. Once chosen, the individual is put through an intense summer training that focuses on race and class issues and how they affect teaching. So the main recruitment draw is from a moral standpoint.
“When we recruit, we tell the story of educational inequity. How growing up in poverty will severely limit your opportunity in life and how that’s a major problem in Buffalo, in every city in the country, but that it is a problem that is solvable. How? By having a teacher in the classroom who is largely going to do whatever it takes to change your path. For example, we have a 5th grade, Spanish speaking only classroom at a Buffalo elementary school. These are kids who have been in Spanish only speaking classes since kindergarten and have been together the entire time because no one else speaks Spanish. So they are on a track to go to Riverside High School, where the graduation rate is 25%. They will probably not graduate from high school; they probably won’t go to college because they don’t speak English proficiently. So our teacher there has talked to the kids about ‘What do you need to do to change your path? Learn English. Speak it, read it, and write it, proficiently.’”
This year, there are 15 TFA teachers in BPS and charter school classrooms.
“It was a bit of a contentious launch because in Buffalo, they don’t usually like programs that are coming out of other places, that haven’t originated in Buffalo. So it was a six month campaign to work with the school board, just hearing what their concerns and wants were regarding these TFA teachers.”
TFA is challenged with claims that their teachers steal people’s jobs. Their teachers are not qualified. This is a non-traditional route into teaching. Also that their teachers come from other areas of the country, teach for two years where they are assigned, and then leave. Below, we will discuss how the organization was able to clear those obstacles and win over the support of the school board and the city. TFA is still building a relationship with the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Once given the green light to operate, they had to dive into fundraising. Private donors lined up, and Mayor Byron Brown secured a grant for the organization. The grant had a stipulation that 75% of those teachers recruited would be from Buffalo. The hope here is that it would be less likely that a teacher would complete their two year program and leave. Here they are close to friends and family, and they connect to the children they are teaching because many of them have come out of the same situations. This isn’t just a change for Buffalo. TFA has shifted its organization to recruit locally in cities around the country. Campos and Kingston were born in Buffalo themselves, and Helpard is a transplant to Buffalo from Rochester, so they too have a passion to see their local recruits succeed.
“Yes, it is a two year agreement, but we tell all of our recruits that we want you here for at least five years. Picture yourself being here for five years and beyond. It’s an uphill battle, but our retention rate from year two to three, three to four, and four to five is on par with the traditionally trained teacher who also got a job with the district.
“With TFA, you get ongoing support you wouldn’t receive from your school otherwise, and training for a different way to approach your classroom.
“So we have a recruit coming in who was a STEM major and football player at UB who didn’t want to go into teaching before speaking with us, and another girl from Harvard who wanted to go into International Relations. Both of these people are from Buffalo. So this is an across the country type thing, but since we are new in Buffalo, we have made recruiting locally our priority.
“Also, some of the teachers aren’t right out of college. Some have been working at Boys and Girls Club of Buffalo or as teachers aids in the district who need extra support to become the teachers of record in the classroom.”
“The Buffalo Public Schools definitely needed help. TFA has 10 teachers in BPS compared to 3300 traditionally trained teachers in the BPS right now. So this is such a small group that it’s not going to change things overnight, but this district is looking for anything that has proven success elsewhere to help.
“Now, there are tons of teachers in Buffalo who don’t have jobs, and they’re coming and they want to teach in Buffalo, but they have degrees where there are no open spaces. So they have English and History specializations, but we are recruiting people who can specifically fill a need like teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). So we’re looking for the people who will fill a specific staff area, where the others who are still without a job are not able to teach it or do not want to teach it.”
“All of our corps members who come here without an education degree will do the intense certification training, and they receive a Transitional B Certification through NYS at Canisius College. So they take classes at Canisius throughout their two-year commitment in pursuit of a master’s degree. Canisius provides a discount and they also receive an Americorps financial award to help with their costs.
Then they take all of their NYS teacher certification exams. A lot of our incoming corps for next year have already taken their exams. They come in to the classroom with their exams done, so they’re just as smart as any teacher who is coming from a traditional education program, and then they’ll take more education classes that are really aligned with the professional support that we’re giving them throughout their commitment.”
The difference is that teachers from TFA organization are given substantial support for two years, five years, or throughout their career. That support consists of an instructional coach, Mary Kingston, who will sit on their class, implement a coaching plan complete with goals, and provide feedback on how the teacher can achieve those goals. There is also an all corps development day. Eight hours, one Saturday per month to build knowledge, skills, and show what it means to be a “transformational teacher.” Finally, there is professional development conducted by cohort. Groups of two or three people who get together once a month to talk about issues they’re facing with their schools, classrooms, and share best practices.
Helpard described how she herself used to be anti-TFA. She was proud to be a traditionally trained teacher working in New York City right after attending college in Buffalo. Her first year of teaching consisted of weekly emotional breakdowns. She didn’t think she’d make it through the year and had to do everything on her own. Her mentor arrived in the spring of her first year and by then was only able to council her only on working through the system and its compliance methods. She became a supporter of TFA when she saw the kind of support its teachers received and declared “Being a teacher really just takes having passion for your kids. Being willing to stay up late and write your lesson plan and try it the next day, and have that resilience. So we recruit people from all backgrounds who have leadership qualities that we know make an effective teacher.”
Finally, TFA would like to take part in changing the Buffalo Public Schools. Next year, they will have 10 additional teachers, then 15 additional teachers the following year. Each of their teachers reaches about 75 students, so in 4 years, their teachers will reach 25% of the BPS student population.
Donald Ogilvie, the Interim Superintendent, said it will take 10 years to turn around these schools. Teach for America agrees and is looking for Buffalo’s brightest and highly motivated individuals to join them in contributing to that turnaround.
We would love to have you join in on this conversation. Please direct comments to this post on our Facebook page.