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It’s been a little over a year since Teach for America set up shop in San Diego. We sat down with one parent whose child is being taught by a TFA teacher to see what’s working and what isn’t.
When Fanny Lengua realized her son was falling behind in school, she stepped in to talk with his teachers about it. Their response was to give him less work so he wouldn’t feel bad about himself. And her response was to switch schools.
Lengua stumbled across a charter school called Adelante Preparatory Academy, located downtown, was founded by two teachers fresh out of Teach for America. Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg established two schools in 1995 and have since expanded to 141 Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools in 20 states.
These days, Lengua’s son is taught by Michelle Torres, a TFA teacher, whom Lengua says is doing a better job than her son’s past teachers.
But she does see room for improvement with TFA’s model, like more one-on-one time with teachers and a proactive approach to communication with parents.
TFA has a polarizing approach to education. But debates over the merits of the program often leave out an important voice: parents. We sat down with Lengua to zoom in on her experience – and her son’s experience – with TFA over the last couple months. Lengua’s interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Have you noticed a significant difference in Torres’ teaching style compared with other teachers?
The difference we have seen with this school is that it’s pushing him for more.
We had a meeting two or three weeks ago with all of the teachers telling him, “We’re going to be pushing you more. We know you can do it. We’re not going to ask less of you but even more.” I have seen the switch in my son. He comes back from school, he tells me what he’s doing, he’s showing interest and I can totally sense that the teachers there are passionate about teaching because he’s sharing that with me. That passion is being passed onto him. That’s been the big difference this year.
If nothing else, even if he keeps struggling with focus, I can tell that for some moments in the day he’s absolutely paying attention and he feels that he’s actually learning. I think that’s the best way to build self esteem in a kid. It’s not to give him less and to make them feel better about it, but actually to push them to make them believe that they can actually do something.
Would you peg that difference to the school or to the teacher?
I think it’s the teacher. The school can tell the teacher what a syllabus should be, but if the teachers are not passionate or they are only giving out papers and telling the kids what to do, they are just barely going to do the work and they are not going to be enthusiastic about it.
On the contrary, [when] he comes home, he’s enthusiastic and he participates and he is trying toward those challenges. So I think it’s not just the school but the teachers.
How much support do you see for your son as he takes on Spanish? Do you see him getting individual attention?
I think it’s very limited; I don’t want to lie and say that they do. I think they have the intention but it’s very difficult for them given the number of children they have. So for example, Ms. Torres suggested that she’s more than willing to have him stay a little bit longer after school hours and ask questions, because it’s difficult during class time to answer all of the kids’ questions.
And I mentioned it to her, some of the concepts he’s learning, he’s especially struggling in her class and that’s because he doesn’t like language. Even though that’s not his favorite class, she’s the one that is pouring onto him and she’s actually doing the work. I think that’s been the biggest challenge for him, which is trying to understand it and she’s trying to spend more time individually with the kids, and I don’t think she’s giving more time to them, given the number of children they have.
I will say that I have the support from her whenever I write her. She’s always sending me feedback and the information I need. I’m really very happy with her as a teacher. She has really shown that she’s giving a lot of herself to the children, and I like that. Even if she is not able to go one-on-one with them all day, at least she’s trying her best, and I think the kids will take it.
Can you speak to some of the criticisms that TFA has faced, like setting unreasonable expectations on teachers?
I can only speak for the teachers that have taught my son and I don’t know if they have been part of TFA or not. In general, even if the schools have all of the syllabus and everything, if the teachers do not show the passion, if the teachers don’t give themselves to the class, the children are going to feel that and that’s how they are going to respond.
I will say that the difference between the teachers that he has had versus the teachers he has today, which are part of this TFA group, is the passion and involvement with the children. He actually talks to his teachers and he listens to them. It’s almost on a daily basis, they are aware of who the kids are and what is going on with their lives. I think that has been a big difference.
Even if the goals are too high, all they can do is try their best.
What about the concern that TFA teachers are undertrained?
I think Ms. Torres is still learning. I can totally see that. I can see that she is still learning the techniques, skills and things but she seems to be stepping up to the requirements. She’s working really hard and I can see that. So I think she has the qualifications.
If she doesn’t have the experience, she might not have it, but she has the skills. It might just take some years of experience.
Do you feel like the school has done a good job including you in everything?
No. I think it’s still a work in progress. I’ll give you an example: When school starts, the first thing I ask from each teacher is the syllabus and the schedule of what the children are going to be taught during each class, so that I can have an idea not only of what they’re going to cover, but also get an idea of what to work on with them at home ‘cause we don’t have that many papers coming back home.
I don’t want to trust that they are doing it at school; I want to be able to reinforce whatever it is at home. Ms. Torres doesn’t have a schedule class per class. She does have a syllabus that she bases on the school’s requirements but she doesn’t have a schedule. So what she did to replace that is she’s been sending me the PowerPoints or whatever they cover in class, and I think that’s good. And that’s only coming to me, not all of the parents. So I think it would be good if all the parents, for example, receive a weekly summary of what they cover or what they are going to cover [in class], whichever it is so that we can reinforce that at home.
Another thing is that I don’t know if he’s bringing home everything that he’s supposed to bring. I have no way of knowing unless I dig on my own, trying to get that information. So things like that, informing the parents here the kids are getting this homework. I think that’s probably still a work in progress.
Any other feedback you’d like to give on the experience you’ve had with TFA so far?
I think there’s always room for improvement. But I think we might be putting too much on them to cover everything. I mean, the day only has 24 hours and I think that teaching so many kids and, on the side, trying to see if the kids have actually learned what you covered during class, one by one is impossible.
I think their communication is really good, but I think at some point they should be more proactive instead of reactive. I would say that they are doing this as parents respond, but I don’t want to put the blame on them saying that they are not doing their part. Because if the parents aren’t showing interest, why would you bother to tell the parents everything every single day? I think it’s a two-side thing.