Teach for America broke ground when it opened a new chapter this fall in San Diego, but it was a tough sell.

The idea behind TFA is pretty straightforward. Take college grads, train them as teachers and then embed them for at least two years in underserved, low-income communities. Since 1990 TFA has amassed an alumni network 32,000 strong.

The idea of opening a local TFA chapter had been kicked around for years, without advancing. Jack McGrory, former city manager of San Diego, said that after his daughter joined TFA he got hooked on the idea of recruiting bright college grads to teach in inner-city schools.

McGrory initiated much of the conversation in San Diego, but said at first he didn’t find a very receptive audience. “Initially we were pretty stiffly rebuffed by the district,” he said.

Historically, unions have resisted TFA, in part because it brings in new teachers who can compete with educators already in the district. Locally, the tension is underscored by the fact that not so long ago, the San Diego Unified school board voted to lay off over 1,500 staff members.

But to cast unions as TFA’s only opponents is too simplistic. Some of the sharpest criticism has been leveled by members of its own alumni.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

It’s this context that makes San Diego Unified’s decision to green-light the TFA chapter in the region all the more interesting, especially because school board trustee and labor leader Richard Barrera signed off on the plan.

So what happened? Well, McGrory said, “We realized we needed to hire an executive director and we knew he had to be local.”

Enter David Lopez. Lopez grew up in Little Italy and North Park, and attended San Diego Charter School. After graduating from UCSD, he became a TFA corps member in Houston.

After he was hired in June 2012, Lopez pounded pavement. He called principals, met with Barrera and Superintendent Cindy Marten, asked questions and listened.

It paid off. The deal he struck with the San Diego Unified school board goes like this: TFA teachers can only apply for open positions. If district teachers already qualify for the jobs, they get first dibs. If not, TFAers are eligible, but they have to interview for the gig just like anyone else.

This year, Teach for America has 19 teachers in San Diego – four within San Diego Unified. Through what’s known as an “intern” credential, they’re allowed to teach while they take education courses at San Diego State University. After completing master-level coursework, and other testing requirements, they earn a “cleared,” bona fide teaching certificate.

The seed money for the program’s first year came from a hodgepodge of contributors, including Price Charities, the Parker Foundation and Irwin Jacobs. (Disclosure: Price Charities, the Parker Foundation and Jacobs are all major donors to Voice of San Diego).

I sat down with Lopez to discuss some of the challenges he faced bringing Teach for America to San Diego and what he learned in the process. Here are portions from the interview, edited for length and clarity.

The teachers union opposed Teach for America in San Diego. Was that a part of why Teach for America didn’t come here sooner?

Well, I think it was much more complex than like one particular hurdle. Basically what I did when I first showed up, I went on a six-month listening tour and tried to sit down with anyone and everyone involved in education in San Diego and just asked: What’s going on here? What’s working? What needs more work?

Traditionally, Teach for America would just have folks that are a part of a national team visit somewhere, and maybe over the course of two or three visits in a year try to figure out: Is there a desire for a region to have Teach for America in their community?

I was one of few people that Teach for America actually hired to be on the ground 24-7 essentially, dedicated to one specific region before launching. I think that that also contributed greatly to us knowing what the community wanted if Teach for America was going to be a partner.

What did you find the community wanted?

Well, for one, they wanted a partner. A genuine partner that was going to come in and say “OK, lots of great things happening in San Diego already, lots of very impressive, dedicated leaders and organizations already working on the issue of educational equity. Where’s some chance for us to act on it?”

Teach for America has almost 24 years of experience being excessively focused on educational equity, across 48 different regions, and has provided a lot of lessons and best practices and such. I asked how we could bring those assets to the table in San Diego, but in a way that’s complementing all the great work that’s already happening.

Folks were very honest and said, “If Teach for America wants to come and partner with us, great. But if you all want to come in here and pretend like you have all the answers, like you’re the answer to the problem, like you’re the silver bullet, then don’t even bother.”

And I totally got that. I think that is a generally common culture in San Diego. We want partners; we don’t want anyone to come in, trumpeting themselves as, like, the thing. We want folks to come in and see what’s working, what needs some work, and to say let’s do it together in a way where we’re contributing to the existing efforts. Once folks started seeing that we were committed to that approach, I think that’s one of the things that really started to shift the tide.

It’s my understanding that Richard Barrera helped open the door for you here. How did you enlist him?

The reason I never go with the us-versus-them concept – you know, unions verses Teach for America – is because so many times, the folks that really care about unions care about the same things that I care about: the importance of supporting teachers; the importance of access to resources for students, despite where they might be growing up or how much money their parents are making; partnerships and collaboration; diversity is important when it comes to our teacher force and our school and district leadership.

There’s all these things that I found myself really agreeing on with many folks across San Diego despite their political affiliation and whether they’re working with the union or not working with the union. I decided to focus on those, not on the points of disagreement.

If Teach for America has evolved, so to speak, do you differ from its previous philosophies?

Yes. One of the biggest ones was this listening tour approach. Five years ago, it would’ve been very likely that Teach for America would have shown up to a new region a lot more adamant in its own approach. And I can’t blame the organization, they’ve had tremendous success in terms of growth of the program, growth of funding, they had some really eye-catching new stories. They were riding high. And they’d come in somewhere and say, ‘Look, we have a lot of proven success. So we’re coming to offer that proven success here. Let’s go.” Very gung-ho, right?

Are you talking about the idea of coming into a community and saying, “We’re here to save you?”

It’s like the concept of listen before leading. Yes, we want to play a leadership role in the effort for educational equity in San Diego. But we need to do a lot of our homework first in listening to our partners and local leaders before we can say that we even know what we can offer.

In the past, we haven’t always lived up to what are now our core values of respect and humility, and we haven’t always genuinely listened to a community at length before saying, “These are the ways that we think we can contribute.”

What are some of the myths that you commonly come across?

I think one of the biggest myths that I hear in San Diego is that our teachers had reserved positions. That somehow a deal was crafted as to where (our teachers were) guaranteed jobs. And, having actually had to do the work myself, and my teachers, of calling principals, sending them emails, doing all the work that went into finding the positions then having our corps members have to interview for them – knowing all that work that went in there, it’s one of those that tends to rub me the wrong way. Because I recognize that it certainly wasn’t the case that positions were reserved by our teachers.

I think another is that everyone at Teach for America thinks that the union is the problem. One of the things that we know now more than ever about our alumni is that there’s a broad diversity in their opinions. You have pretty much every opinion you can think about with regard to education. So anyone who would like to say that TFA is like a monolith when it comes to its opinion about what is and isn’t working in education, I think hasn’t had a chance to interact with TFA folks enough.

How about the idea of “Here come these kids. They take jobs for a couple years, and then they’re gone”?

So, I think again, myth. Sort of. It’s a myth that this concept of a high attrition rate, you know teachers leaving the profession, is only true of Teach for America. But when we look at the attrition rate across all teachers, regardless of how they came into the profession, the attrition rate is extraordinarily high no matter what.

If we zoom out, and we look at the way that entire schools and districts and government structures, communities, if we look at how those big system pieces work, what is it that is making that attrition rate for teachers so high? And how can we continue to push in the right direction to where a teacher can stay in the profession for a very long time and deliver results without feeling like they’re being burned at both ends?

That’s another reason to focus so much on the partnerships. Because, as Cindy (Marten) would probably tell you, when you build up entire communities around teachers and students like she did at Central Elementary, that actually takes off some of the burden that’s on the teacher’s shoulder. So the teacher no longer has to be the counselor, and the medical practitioner and the food service worker. They can actually focus on what they do in the classroom, and we can bring in some of these other partners to do some of these additional things that we know students need.

    This article relates to: Community, Education, News, People, Q-and-A, School Leadership, School Performance, Share, Teach For America

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    There is no need for TFA in the current economic milieu. Class sizes have increase from 50 to 150% in the county. Teachers have been pink slipped(laid off) since 2009.  TFA does not answer gnawing questions regarding the "Common Core" and how the new standards will look like in the classroom. New and enthusiastic and, perhaps naive, teachers abound.  The problems of the prek-8 classroom have yet to be solved by charter, politics, nor curriculum. And TFA, again, cannot answer those questions. TFA cannot be a competitor for jobs in California. That is morally wrong.  TFA can work only if subsidized by grantors for specialized jobs at the schools and after school programs. Specialized jobs? Yes. Our number one problem(?) is second language learners. Theorists and social scientists agree that learning a second language takes a lot of time and intensive study with small groups. A classroom of 31+ students with second language learners is destined for ultimate and immediate failure. That is absolutely not to say that eventually those students will take traction. But time is of the essence.

    No. The need is for additional help, either in the classroom with small group instruction, or before school or after school small group instruction. And, TFA cannot cost the district ANY money. TFA teachers are for the short term and , therefore, a short term fix. With continual help from TFA, a difference can be made. Unions are not the issue. Employment is.


    Good article, making right wing connection to ALEC..and TFA.

    VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

    What I didn't get from the article is if there is a need that TFA is filling. Are there schools that were haing a hard time finding good teachers? I have heard frustration from the (fantastic) younger teachers at my neighborhood elementary school because of the lack of job certainty, that every year they have to start from scratch looking for new "temporary" positions. Is there a lack of competition for some teaching positions?


    Search..ALEC and Teach for America..
    Some interesting information about how Teach for America operates and who supports it.

    VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

    That does make more sense, thank you. I, for one, am glad to see that people are trying to find a way to work together.


    HI Veronica,

    As I understand it, TFA brings in teachers where there weren't enough before. Traditionally, that includes high school/ middle school math and science, as I believe is the case is SD Unified. If the district already has enough elementary school teachers, TFA won't bring in more. Hope this helps!

    Stuart Morse
    Stuart Morse subscriber

    TJ Apple, i understand that blaming unions is a popular talking point, but can you give any specific examples of how our education system is, "stymied by the unions"?


    TFA is just one more right wing plan to undermine the teachers' union. Whether it's charter schools, vouchers, state bills to do away with tenure, Up4Ed or Michelle Rhee's organization, all to undercut the union, because the union is a big contributor to Democratic candidates.
    Cindy Marten is a trusting, inexperienced leader who likes phrases like "listening to our partners", "broad diversity of opinion", "listening tours" and "build communities"...lots of blather and babble...All the while, these sharks are stealing jobs and undercutting salaries of experienced, competent teachers.

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple

    Yikes Francesca, a little paranoid are we? I don't buy the whole 'right wing' conspiracy thing but I fully support choice in education and a weakening of the union grip on it. As long as our education system remains stymied by the unions I will never vote another dime to education at the ballot box. Reform education now!

    David LaRoche
    David LaRoche subscriber

    Is there a full time union employee who monitors these reports? Every time there is an article, it seems a pro-union supporter writes in - oh, yeah I forgot it's not in their contracts to work.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    Lopez's answer to the attrition question does not ring true. It is known that TFA teachers don't stick around very long after they complete the required two years. As for a high attrition rate among all teachers that might be explained by knowing that if you don't get a permanent contract after two years it is time to move on. Year to year there are not many permanent teaching jobs available. Most teachers get permanent jobs by substituting in the district they want to work for.They make a name for themselves doing a very difficult job. If you ever want a challenging job try substitute teaching. Most TFA teachers have a college degree in some other field then education, as explained in the interview. The TFA workers get to teach and at the same time complete their student teaching year while in the classroom. In order to get a California teaching credential you must complete the fifth year. So to me the TFA people are taking jobs from people who have already completed their fifth year. A lot of districts won't even let you substitute teach unless you have that fifth year.

    Hiring a TFA person is fools gold, first they aren't going to stick around, they have degrees in other fields where they can make much more money. It takes at least three to four years to become a proficient teacher. So after two years and with their best years ahead most TFA's leave the field an the district must start over hiring a new teacher.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    If it takes 3-4 years to become proficient, tell me again how long it takes to get tenure.