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Will Teach for America Come Back?

Teach for America, which came blazing into town in 2002 and promptly quit the city two years later, may be bracing for another shot at Detroit. “All eyes are now on Detroit,” says Ify Offor, vice president of new site development for the organization, which places college graduates and professionals in low-income school districts to teach for two years. “There's leadership that wants to take on this issue of education reform.”

Offor says she has met with officials in Governor Granholm's office, along with the Detroit Federation of Teachers and the United Way. “Our goal is to simply make Detroit a center for education reform and Teach for America is an integral part of that reform, as the place to come to do the very best work,” says Michael Tenbusch, vice president of education preparedness at United Way of Southeastern Michigan. As for the union, Offor's aim is to ensure that relations get off on a better foot than they did last time, when the Detroit Public School was facing budget issues and beginning to lay off certified teachers—creating resentment toward TFA members who had not completed Michigan's long and arduous certification process.  (Tenbusch of the United Way successfully pushed the Michigan legislature to pass a bill allowing for a quicker certification process in certain cases.) With the lack of support, Teach for America had no choice but to finish its two-year commitment until 2004 and then withdraw.

If TFA does come back to Detroit, don't expect it to have a major impact. Start with the numbers: TFA had 35 teachers back in 2002. DPS employs a total of 6,000 teachers. Furthermore, TFA has a host of critics. Some contend that it's little more than a pit stop for Ivy League grads looking to boost their resume before moving onto their corporate careers. Former TFA teacher Nate Walker says that what he calls the organization's “number-driven” approach, which is focused on raising test scores, is too limited to deliver major change. Walker is one of many Detroiters working on alternative charter schools. His, called the Boggs Educational Center, would place more emphasis on having the kids create student portfolios and self-reflections, and apply skills taught in class to real‑life situations. “The models that we're working on, they build community,” says Walker. “We value kids for who they are and whatever they do regardless if they decide to go to Harvard or be a plumber.”

Still, DPS needs whatever help it can get. Detroit's fourth- and eight-graders recently scored abysmally on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized exam that measures math, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography and U.S. history. “As we look at the low NAEP scores for Detroit's children, it is clear that this is a problem that we can and must, in fact, address,” Offor says. “We look at Teach For America as one critical source of talent in helping to address this problem.”  —Mariem Qamruzzaman

Mariem Qamruzzaman is a life-long resident of metro Detroit and a 2009 graduate of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.  She has written for the Detroit Free Press, South Bend Tribune, and worked for Michigan Radio.  Currently, she is freelancing and volunteering with non-profit organizations.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article incorrectly described Ify Offor as a man.

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