For the first time since it set up shop in the city 18 years ago, Teach for America is spreading into the suburbs, sending teachers into low-performing schools in Baltimore County that leaders say need as much help as those in the city.
The move into four Baltimore County middle schools — Old Court, Deer Park, Windsor Mill and Golden Ring — will give the district 14 new TFA teachers to help decrease class sizes in reading and math.
"We thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to begin providing additional resources in schools where students need assistance," said Donald A. Peccio, the county's assistant superintendent for human resources.
TFA had hoped to expand into Anne Arundel County as well, but there wasn't enough money available to do so this year, said Omari Todd, the vice president of regional operations for TFA. Baltimore County contributed $200,000 to the training and mentoring for the new teachers. Peccio said principals requested more TFA teachers than the county could afford to provide.
The expansion into other areas of the state is not intended as a shift of focus for the organization, which will have 320 members working in city schools this fall, said Todd. He added that TFA is trying to help more underperforming schools with low-income children.
Ten of the 14 new teachers have been assigned to Old Court and Deer Park, schools that are being restructured as a result of years of failing to meet federal standards. Each has gotten new administrative staff, and teachers had to reapply for their jobs. The two other schools will split the remaining teachers.
"The county has some good schools," said Todd. But, he added, there are also some that have test scores that are very similar to those in the city.
The four middle schools "look a lot and feel a lot like the schools we are in now," Todd said.
Every new TFA member goes through an intensive five-week summer course and receives additional mentoring and training during the school year through Teach For America. But Baltimore County is providing additional mentoring for the new teachers and is arranging their schedules so that all the new teachers have a common time during the school day to talk over problems and get advice.
Research on the effectiveness of TFA teachers has been building, and a number of recent studies say that the teachers are just as or more effective than other new teachers trained through traditional education programs.
Competition to get into the program has become more difficult than getting into graduate school. This year, 46,000 people applied for Teach for America and 12 percent were chosen. The members who were placed in schools had an average GPA of 3.6 and 89 percent had leadership experience, according to the Teach for America website.
One of those new members is Kristin Patterson, a 22-year-old graduate of the University of Miami in Ohio who will teach at Deer Park. She chose Maryland, she said, because the state has a reputation for high academic standards and because Baltimore is known as an up-and-coming city that is fun for young people to live in.
After many family discussions with her father, an educator now involved in reform, she chose teaching, she said.
"I think that teaching is probably one of the hardest professions anyone could choose," Patterson said. "It is a lot of pressure to know that you are affecting these children's lives."
Damien Ingram, principal at Deer Park, said it is that spirit and commitment that he finds a good fit for his school. "They are very enthusiastic about coming in and teaching," Ingram said. Many of the TFA members have already spent significant time tutoring or volunteering in schools during college.
"Yes, it is great to have those people who are trained in college, but more than anything, I think a person's level of commitment prepares them to do what is necessary to help students achieve," he said.