Philly's Teach For America Chapter Feels the Layoff Pinch

By Queen Muse
|  Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013  |  Updated 12:06 PM EDT
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Teach for America Feels Philly Layoff Pinch

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Massive layoffs within the School District of Philadelphia is having a trickle-down effect on newly-minted educators eager to start teaching in Philadelphia.

Teach For America of Greater Philadelphia (TFAGP) may face additional challenges placing its corps members in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) this year due to the district’s budget crisis. Teach For America is a national nonprofit organization that recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach in communities throughout the country. In any given region, TFA corps members are placed in public or charter schools based on expressed need. When funding issues lead to staffing cuts, such as has occurred in Philadelphia, that need tends to diminish.

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A $304 million funding gap has plagued the School District of Philadelphia. Until politicians and school administrators figure out how to close that gap, many teachers, including TFAGP corps members, are spending their summers in limbo -- not knowing if they'll have a job when school starts in the fall.

“Teach for America of Greater Philadelphia is impacted just like every other educational organization and every teacher in the community. We are experiencing variable demand and a wealth of principals aren’t sure of whether or not they’re going to need us. A lot of our corps members are still in the process of training and interviewing and don’t yet have a teaching assignment for August,” TFAGP spokesman Isha Lee said.

According to Lee, during the 2012 school year, TFAGP had 115 total teachers in Philadelphia. That's down nearly 46 percent compared to a corps size of 252 in school year 2011. And in 2012, only 20 of the 115 corps members were in placed SDP schools; the rest were placed in charter schools.

When the district laid off 676 of its teachers last month, all but two of the 20 TFAGP corps members in SDP were included in that number.

“Our goal is always to have as many district placements as possible, but we can only meet demand. Our lesser presence in SDP was literally due to the district’s lack of openings and unfortunately, our teachers go through the same layoff process as any other employee,” Lee said.

“We’re focused on that small group of folks who were laid off, exploring options with them, and helping all of our teachers understand what all of this means and what might happen throughout the summer.”

Managing Director of District and Community Partnerships, Mary Lema, is responsible for finding placements for TFAGP’s corps members. Lema also shares the responsibility of guiding corps members through the layoff process, which she says can be very difficult because corps members are being placed in a larger pool of often more qualified applicants all vying for a small number of positions.

“The reality is we’re in a very challenging landscape right now. School leaders are interviewing people with years more experience than our members and the number of positions available are few,” Lema said.

“What we’ve done for them is we’ve given them the opportunity to hold off for callbacks. If they’re not called back we will have them explore new options with non-district partners.”

As part of her job, Lema also has the opportunity to observe members’ response to the cuts. Despite worries about their own fates, Lema said overwhelmingly TFAGP corps members are still committed to working in the region and are more concerned about the dire conditions SDP students will return to in the fall.

“I think there’s a diversity of responses from teachers, but for a lot of them, now that they’ve spent time in their school community, the conversation has been around their worries for their students coming back to fewer resources and the relationships built being lost. Having been in the city for the last year, many of them are more concerned about needs for their students and their schools,” Lema said.

“Only a few decided to go to other areas. The rest decided to stay with the district and wait for call backs. The vast majority of them wanted to wait and remain with their schools and within the district. For many of them Philadelphia is their number one choice. Many of them come because they have roots in the city or are interested in coming knowing that it’s going to be a huge challenge and sort of aligning that with why they want to come.”

Lee says TFAGP will continue its normal recruiting process for school year 2013 but will likely have to accept fewer applicants into the program due to lack of demand. She also emphasized that the number of people applying to TFAGP is not shrinking, the positions available for them to fill is.

“We use a delicate formula of accessing demand and accessing how many want to be in the region. If there aren’t openings, that’s the reason for the diminishing corp,” Lee said.

“We can’t take as many as we would love to take. It means we’re turning more people away because the resources to hire teachers are just not there. We’re not going to bring people that we know we won’t have an opening for.”

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