WAFF 48 Investigates: Teach For America in Huntsville Schools

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Huntsville City Schools tout themselves as a data-driven district, which is why they turned to Teach For America. They want to turn around the numbers at under-performing schools.

Last year, in year one of the contract with Teach For America, the district brought in 27 TFA teachers, primarily young men and women straight out of college. Most of them didn't major in education. Their educational background? Five weeks of intense instruction over the summer and then, into the classroom.

"You get thrown into it a little bit," said Carmyn Chapman, an 8th grade world history teacher. "But there's a lot of support structures around you helping you in becoming a teacher."

Chapman's one of seven TFA teachers assigned to Westlawn Middle School, a school that the state labeled as "failing" this year. And according to the data the district gave me, they seem to be making a difference there.

"They were about a third of the faculty," said Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski. "Westlawn had been heading downhill. This year, it started heading in the direction of recovery in a very dramatic way."

In math, four of the five TFA teachers rated above average for students growth in the classroom. One was the highest. And in reading, three of the five scored with high growth classrooms.

But that's all we can definitively tell you about TFA teachers' performance. And it isn't because we don't want to. We requested numbers from Huntsville City Schools for all of the TFA teachers a month ago, and were told they had data on every teacher in the district.

We waited and waited and, finally after many requests, we were provided a dozen charts. Unfortunately, just two of those charts had any information about TFA teachers performance. Dr. Wardynski told us that's all the data they have, that there isn't any standardized test to gauge history or science teachers. Keep in mind that is after being told there was data on all teachers.

That brings us to Davis Hills Middle School, another school on the state's failing list and a TFA school. "Davis Hills moved dramatically this year," said Wardynski. "In fact, in science, they moved a very large amount in a positive direction."

But again, we weren't provided any numbers to back that up. We were told they didn't have numbers on science because the state didn't require it.

Even in reading at Davis Hills, the majority of teachers had their students progressing where they should be. But at least six are under-performing, and there's no telling whether they are TFA or non-TFA teachers.

We've asked Huntsville City Schools repeatedly over the last month for more data, and yet we've only received data on seven of the 27 TFA teachers - just 25% of the teachers after year one of a 4-year, $1.7 million contract.

TFA social studies teacher Jesse Frank's heard the criticism that TFA teachers can't measure up, but he says they definitely can.

"If you look at the Teach For America teachers' numbers in terms of test growth across the district, they're not only competitive with other first-year teachers," said Frank. "I would argue that they're competitive with the veteran teachers across the district."

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