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Q&A: Teach for America’s New York City leader, who says her corps may stay small

Charissa Fernandez, the executive director of Teach for America - New York City.
Charissa Fernandez, the executive director of Teach for America - New York City.
Geoff Decker

When Charissa Fernandez was interviewing to take over Teach for America’s New York City office, the directive couldn’t have been clearer: Rebuild the alternative teacher certification program’s decimated corps.

The nonprofit’s teacher pipeline had dwindled from more than 1,000 teachers to just over 500 teachers in only a few years, thanks to city budget cuts and a lengthy hiring freeze. After Fernandez took over in the summer of 2013, growing TFA’s ranks was her biggest priority, she said.

Now, a little more than a year into the job, Fernandez said her vision for Teach for America in New York City may actually involve shrinking its numbers.

“It’s not just about the number of our corps members,” Fernandez said.

As TFA’s national leaders address ongoing criticism of their model, Fernandez said she wants to tackle her organization’s shortcomings directly. That means addressing the long-held complaint that TFA doesn’t do enough keep its corps members in the classroom after they complete their two-year teaching commitment.

In an interview last month from Teach for America’s offices in midtown Manhattan, Fernandez discussed her vision, which includes a move away from charter schools after a multi-year surge in placements there, her big bet on retaining teachers, and where TFA fits in with the de Blasio administration. (The interview was condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

How has the organization changed under your watch?

I had so much to learn about how things are done here, about the history of the organization. That was all happening amidst an immense amount of change in the city and in our organization. So just taking it all in and trying to process and decide where is the most important place to focus my limited resources.

We’ve really narrowed our focus from all the many things we could do with a very ambitious mission: Getting our teachers better in the classroom. And then getting them to stay longer. And not just stay longer in teaching, and not just getting them to stay in education, but to stay longer in their placement school, in their original placement school.

We think, and I think personally, as a professional and as a parent, that it does matter for teachers to stay longer in schools.

What are you hoping will get teachers to stay in the classroom beyond two, three, four years?

The whole thing starts from the point of recruitment. It’s not just about the training. We have to really start from who we’re bringing in, making sure we’re bringing the right people to our schools. And that means people who are more reflective of the students we serve, share the backgrounds of the students we serve.

But it’s also people who, whatever their background, come with a deep commitment to New York City. If you’ve got some connection to New York City, we’re betting that you’re more likely to stay.

But you’re also still encouraging teachers to take leadership positions. So what is the balance there?

What we want to make sure is that people aren’t making decisions to leave the classroom because of anything we are saying, or because of any support that they’re not getting. For instance, my assistant did the corps and she says if she had gotten more encouragement to stay, she might have stayed.

But what I also say to school principals and administrators at the DOE who say, ‘Your people are great, but they don’t stay long enough’ is, ‘It’s not all on us.’ There are things that we can do. We need to work on our messaging from recruitment, we need to work on support, et cetera. But it’s not all on us. So much of it is who you work for: Leadership at the school level. We can be telling them all along that yes, you should stay in your placement school. But if they don’t feel like they’re supported there in their placement school, it doesn’t really matter.

So that means that we’re thinking really carefully about where we place and we will probably get a little smaller next year … So we’re really saying that it’s most important to be really thoughtful about where we’re placing our teachers so that they end up in the right schools. And a right school is one where there’s both high need, but also where they have support.

Slightly less than half of your teachers work in charter schools. How important is the expansion of the charter school sector to TFA’s mission and work?

Last year, [teacher placement] was more like 65 percent charter. We’ve made it a priority this year to increase our footprint in district schools, primarily because we just wanted to more closely reflect the distribution of high-need schools in our city.

For de Blasio’s pre-K expansion, New York City hired 1,000 new early education teachers and will hire another 1,000 next year. TFA-NYC only increased its early education corps from 15 to 22 recruits. What role would you like to see TFA-NYC play in de Blasio’s pre-K initiative?

Honestly, I’d love to double the size of our early childhood cohort. There are real limitations, particularly because we’re placing in community-based organizations, where the pay is not comparable to the pre-K teachers in the DOE. And I think that if we can solve that issue, we could bring in many more early childhood teachers.

I think the interest is there, but it’s really challenging. And our folks are also paying to get a master’s degree and community-based organizations placements work year round, they work longer hours. So it’s not even like, oh I’ll get another job on the side, which none of our teachers have the capacity to do, really. It doesn’t make any sense.

They all are responsible for the same thing—getting kids ready for kindergarten. So why wouldn’t there be the same pay for that? I mean, I know there are a whole host of historical reasons why that is, but we really need to solve that.

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