Elite Teach For America thrust into APS scandal

10:39 AM, Jul 21, 2011   |    comments
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Atlanta Public Schools

ATLANTA -- Teach For America teachers are recruited from the best Ivy League, private and state schools in the nation. They forego well-paying jobs to spend two years working in some of the country's most challenging school districts.

Even their ranks were not immune from the worst school cheating scandal in U.S. history.

Three Teach For America educators in Atlanta schools have confessed to cheating to state investigators and more were implicated.

"A handful of our teachers did confess to cheating and there are no excuses for that. It's completely unacceptable," said Metro Atlanta Teach For America Executive Director Kwame Griffith.

Teach For America's ties to district leadership run deep, and some of its most ardent supporters fared the worst in the report.

Quotes from embattled Superintendent Beverly Hall, who brought Teach for America to the city, still adorn the program's website.

Former Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine was a board member for the organization. The state's report concluded Augustine, "knew or should have known cheating and other misconduct was occurring in schools in the APS system" and that Augustine made false statements about an investigation into cheating at Deerwood Academy.

Missy Ball-Rivner was a Teach For America participant in 2009 and is a University of Georgia graduate. Her classroom was flagged for having a high number of erasures in the state's CRCT report, but she has never been implicated.

"I want to know why my classroom was flagged and who did those erasures and what happened," Ball-Rivner, now pursuing a Ph.D., said. "My kids. I thought they did really well on the tests and I'm finding out that they didn't do as well."

Teach For America officials have no investigation into their teachers' actions, have not offered them legal assistance and say that, so far, have no plans to change internal policy.

A History of Success

Teach For America is nothing if not demanding. Competition among college graduates is bruising: 87% of Metro Atlanta's participants held leadership positions on their college campus. The average SAT score: 1945. Average GPA: 3.5.

Training is intense, with sessions full of long hours before school begins. Some participants drop out, citing difficult classroom and school climates.

But the payoff can be hugely rewarding for districts and teachers alike. Many teachers continue teaching. Some even continue to work for the organization. Others go on to the top jobs they expected before they joined on to teach.

The program has left its mark on the city for nearly a decade.
First Lady Laura Bush came to Atlanta to in 2002 as the city welcomed its first Teach For America teachers.

This Fall, 144 teachers will start school in Atlanta; 900 have passed through the district's halls since the program's inception. The Obama administration cited Georgia's Teach For America support as one reason Georgia won the $400 million Race To The Top Grant.

Teach For America has grown in the 20 years since its inception to encompass nearly 40 regions with some 20,000 alumni. From humble beginnings with five placement sites, the program has gone on to touch some 3 million students.

"I don't want it (the scandal) to overshadow the over 99 percent of our teachers who have done really good things," Griffith said.

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