Teach for America program readies for controversial Minnesota debut

Elite program angers largest teachers' union in the state

All this chatter doesn't matter much to Keith Lester, superintendent of Brooklyn Center Schools. In the most recent science exams, 84 percent of the students tested did not meet the state minimum requirement. A former high school music instructor with a gray beard, he talks with excitement about the four Teach for America corps members his district will receive this year.

"From what I've heard they're just incredible people," he says. "Though I can't say they are as prepared as traditional teachers, I also know that some who went through a college teaching program weren't that prepared, either."

Lester highlights an added benefit that Teach for America members will bring to his school. "Not to take anything away from the amazing teachers we already have, but here are graduates that can do anything—become doctors, lawyers, get high-paying jobs in the sciences—and they choose to spend two years of their lives working with our kids."

Executive director Daniel Sellers hopes Teach for America will help close the achievement gap in Minnesota schools
Sean Smuda
Executive director Daniel Sellers hopes Teach for America will help close the achievement gap in Minnesota schools

Among the many financial backers of Teach for America is Minneapolis's Medtronic Foundation. Beginning in 1994, it donated small sums of money, in the range of $25,000 to $50,000 a year. That number increased greatly in 2006 with a donation of $250,000, and in 2007 and 2008 the company donated a total of a half-million dollars each year. The goal is to help recruit math and science teachers, and train them how to use their MIT understanding of nuclear physics to teach basic principles of science to third-graders.

In the next three years, Medtronic will donate an additional $1.4 million to Teach for America, helping its expansion in Minnesota. For David Etzwieler, the foundation's vice president of community affairs and executive director, the program will help support the existing teaching corps and infuse it with new ideas. To him, the complaints are understandable, but miss the larger problem of an uneducated workforce looming in the near future.

"We can't fail at this," he says. "People are shocked when they hear about the disparities and gap in Minnesota. White students are doing well, but the fact of the matter is that we are not adequately serving students who are near or at the bottom of the pyramid. This is totally against the culture of our state." 

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