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Seattle debating merits of Teach for America

A Teach for America trainee in a Florida classroom in 2008. Seattle Schools are voting on a proposal to allow TFA corps members in their classrooms.

A full slate of public testimony is expected at tonight's  school board meeting in Seattle.  The board is voting on a controversial proposal to allow new recruits from a national organization called Teach for America into Seattle's public schools.  The program places top college grads – who don't have traditional teaching certificates - in underperforming schools. 

For Janis Ortega, it's hard to believe that there's any controversy about the proposal or her organization.   She not only went through the program herself and taught for two years, she's now Teach for America's  managing director for new-site development, working to get the program into needy school districts all over the country.

"I see it as a real innovative organization, committed to student success, willing to do whatever it takes to ensure kids are learning and to ensure that communities are transforming and we're breaking cycles of poverty through education," Ortega says.

For 20 years now, Teach for America has been recruiting college grads to commit two years as members of a special corps.  They don't have a teaching degree when they sign up, but they earn it along the way.  Recruits have mentors who help them set goals for their classrooms and keep them on track. 

Ortega says what they might lack in traditional certification, they make up for with the backing of a national organization that is constantly asking 'are we doing enough?'

"And I think that while that I'm sure exists in many classrooms, we're able to grow that to scale and we hold ourselves accountable to student outcomes in a way that I do think is unique to a national organization."

The Puget Sound region is Teach for America's latest target – they want to place 50 teachers here next year.  Federal Way has already signed on and talks are underway with Tacoma. 

Seattle is the lynch pin.  The school board is voting on an agreement that would allow as many as 25 of the non-certified trainees to compete for open positions. 

But the teachers' union doesn't like the idea.  President Olga Addea  says the state already has plenty of fully qualified teachers and not enough openings.  

"At West Seattle Elementary School, we had 800 applicants for 4 positions. As you know, the state has suffered reductions in force over the last two years, teaching force, so we have a lot of highly qualified educators - and that would include national board certified teachers - who are in the applicant pool. So, it's not needed," Addae says.

But Teach for America has a $50-million dollar federal grant to expand.  It says Washington is one of a handful of states where the achievement gap is growing. 

And its proponents, including the Bill and Melinda Gates and Seattle Foundations, are ready to defray start up costs for the district.  They say as long as urban education is failing to serve needy populations, it's important to experiment with alternatives that might work.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.