Teach for America New York Executive Director Charissa Fernández on this year’s corps, DACA and teacher training

Courtesy of Teach For America

Teach for America may be one of the most well-known education nonprofits. The national group recruits new teachers and places them in districts where there’s a shortage of qualified educators. New York Executive Director Charissa Fernández spoke with New York Nonprofit Media about this year’s corps and what ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program means for her organization. This interview has been edited and condensed. You can listen to it in full, here.

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NYN: Most people probably know what Teach for America looks like, but what is its profile in New York City? Where are educators placed?

CF: That has changed over the years as the landscape in New York City education has changed. This year, we are bringing in approximately 265 new teachers and we have a total of 440 first- and second-year teachers who are working in schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. They tend to be concentrated in the neighborhoods where there is the most educational inequity. So, we have a lot of our teachers in the South Bronx – in Mott Haven and Hunts Point – we have a lot of teachers in East and Central Harlem and Washington Heights, and then in Brooklyn we’re very heavily in Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, East New York, Brownsville and Ocean Hill.

And they are working in all types of schools. The majority of them are in traditional district schools – about 55 percent – about 35 percent this year will be in charter schools, and 10 percent are in community-based organizations teaching pre-K.

NYN: Do they get to choose where they go?

CF: People definitely choose early childhood. It’s dependent on what they can be licensed to teach, which depends on what coursework they took when they were in college. But whenever we have native New Yorkers – which about a third of our corps are native New Yorkers – we do try to give them the opportunity to work in the neighborhood where they’re from just so they have that connection.

charissa fernandezNYN: Why is it important to have diverse teachers in the classroom?

CF: Diversity is something that Teach for America has invested heavily in developing a very diverse corps around the country and we’re very proud to be the most diverse teacher pipeline in the country. This year, in New York, more than half of our corps are people of color and close to half are from low-income backgrounds and are first-generation college grads themselves. And that is incredibly important given the student population we are working with. They serve as incredible role models for those students, for them to see what’s possible, in terms of graduating from college and being very successful in college and being selected for a program like Teach for America. And then coming back to work in communities similar to, if not the same communities that they’re from.

NYN: Has the outcome of the presidential election driven recruitment?

CF: I do think that the election has had a big impact on our country and, to me, has really made it more apparent than ever how important it is to do the work that we’re doing to end educational inequity. I think whether you are looking at the racial and socioeconomic divides in our country or looking at our ability as Americans to discern real from fake news, that you can see the impact that education has in our country …

We don’t have any measurable evidence that the election made a difference in our recruitment. What we do know is that the election has made a difference in the lives of the students we serve. We work with with the most vulnerable students in our society, in our country, and the election has definitely had an impact on their day-to-day lives.

“More than 10,000 students in 11 states have benefited from DACA corps members. We have every intention to continue to fight for the rights of this group of immigrants.”

NYN: President Donald Trump’s administration has moved to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Some of those DACA recipients have taught in the corps and make up some of the students in city schools. How does that affect your organization?

CF: It’s a really devastating day for us. Not so much for us, but for our DACA corps members. Teach for America came out in support of the DREAM Act and then started recruiting DACA corps members back in 2013. And so we have close to 200 people who have participated in the program around the country over the past five years, including here in New York. So it’s devastating for that group of people, but beyond that, for all of the students for who they’re serving. So it’s more than 10,000 students in 11 states who have benefited from these DACA corps members, and there is an immense amount of uncertainty for them now and we have every intention to continue to fight for the rights of this group of immigrants to this country to continue to contribute to our country.

NYN: How are you going to advocate for DACA?

CF: A number of very brave DACA corps members have been willing to, frankly, put themselves in a very vulnerable position and speak out in support of the program, the difference that it’s made in their lives and then the difference that they’re making in the lives of students who are in our schools – the undocumented immigrants and the documented immigrants. Because, frankly, people are making assumptions and judgments about them all the time. They’re playing an important role for all students. … It’s important that people interact with people who have a similar background to them, and people who are different. This is a huge challenge that we’re facing in our society now.

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NYN: The Trump administration has proposed eliminating funding for AmeriCorps in the upcoming federal budget. What would that mean for Teach for America?

CF: This has been an incredibly challenging time for public education. The proposed budget has $9 billion in cuts to public education and we know that that will disproportionately impact low-income students. And AmeriCorps is one element of that that is particularly important to Teach For America. It has been essential in enabling us to expand and diversify our corps over the past 20 years. In particular, in places like New York where our corps members have to get a master’s degree in order to get their license, the education award that they earn through AmeriCorps is really essential to helping them to fund that master’s degree. It’s less Teach for America’s budget that really would be hurt by the elimination of AmeriCorps, but really our corps members and people who are coming out of college already with student loans and then have to earn a master’s degree. It would be really devastating.

NYN: A SUNY committee is weighing a proposal that would allow some charter school educators to certify their own teachers. As an organization helping teachers get into the classroom, where do you land on that?

CF: I don’t know all of the details of the SUNY proposal, but obviously Teach for America runs alternative certification programs here in New York and around the country, so we believe in alternative certification as an important strategy that schools need to help attract and retain the talent that’s necessary to end education inequity. So, in general, we are supportive of alternative certification programs. I think there are some elements that need to be true for strong alternative certification programs. One is having a high bar for admission, another is ensuring that there is a rigorous pre-service training program, and then ensuring that there is ongoing support and development available to teachers in their first couple of years. Those have been key elements of our alternative certification programs.

Here in New York, we are now working in collaboration with graduate schools of education, and I think one of the reasons that has been really important to us – besides the fact that right now it’s required – is thinking about having a portable credential. We just live in a day and age where people no longer stay in jobs for 20, 30 years like they used to. People change employers, they move to other cities and other states, and I think it’s important to us that our teachers are able to, if they move someplace else, they’re able to teach in that place if they want to.