In a first, Chicago Public Schools is moving to partner with a grassroots teacher preparation program backed by the Chicago Teachers Union to help diversify its majority-white teaching force and fill hard-to-staff positions in district-run schools. At the same time, it plans to scale back from previous agreements with Teach For America.

Grow Your Own Illinois, which recruits and supports parents and community members to become teachers in their own communities, and Teach For America, which finds aspiring teachers from among graduates of prestigious universities — and is reviled by the union — are two of three nonprofit organizations that district administrators are recommending for three-year contracts at this week’s Board of Education meeting.

The largest contract would go to the Golden Apple Foundation, which identifies and supports potential teachers from the ranks of current high school and college students across the state.

“What’s really exciting about this potential contract is that it shows what an important issue teacher diversity is,” says Kate Van Winkle, executive director of Grow Your Own. “It seems like such an intractable problem, but the more people you have working on something, the greater likelihood there is that you’re going to find a solution.”

TFA and Golden Apple have long had formal agreements with CPS, though the district allowed them to lapse last year in order to draft what one district official called a “more comprehensive, more cohesive” request for proposals.

Under the new contracts, Golden Apple would be paid about $2.4 million for recruiting, preparing and coaching up to 305 new teachers over three years, the biggest contract in the group’s history; TFA gets about $1.5 million for 270 teachers over that period; and Grow Your Own would receive just under $400,000 for 65 teachers — for a total of 640.

The total cost over three years would be $4.6 million, which includes some extra money for Golden Apple and TFA for coaching teachers this year, even after their prior agreements had lapsed.

Racial mismatch between teachers and students

Mirroring national trends, CPS has long struggled with a racial mismatch between its teachers and students, which is both an equity issue and academic issue, as studies have found that students benefit by having teachers with similar ethnic backgrounds. The mismatch is most pronounced among Hispanics: about 46 percent of CPS students are Hispanic, while only 19 percent of teachers are.

African-American students make up about 39 percent of overall enrollment, but just 23 percent of teachers are black, down from about 40 percent since 2000. The Better Government Association has reported on how years of layoffs — including those that stemmed from the 2013 closing of 49 schools — have had a disproportionate impact on black teachers.

Another reason for the recent decline in teachers of color is the state’s new and more challenging test for admission to teacher education programs. Proportionately, more candidates of color failed the test. Catalyst reported on the decline in enrollment at Illinois teacher education programs across all races in 2014 — a trend that state data indicates has continued.

Matt Lyons, chief of talent for CPS, says contracting with outside teacher training groups will “not solve our problem, but it’s part of the solution to getting more folks to our door who represent a diverse breakdown that more mirrors our student population.”

The majority of CPS teachers hired through Grow Your Own and Golden Apple are educators of color, district data show. It’s not just that they may have the same skin color as their students; many share other personal experiences.

Dilara Sayeed, chief education officer for Golden Apple, says the organization deliberately recruits low-income, first-generation college students from Chicago. College students who are in the Golden Apple program also take summer courses that are specifically geared toward potential jobs in CPS, including classes on the district’s teacher evaluation system and teaching in urban settings.

According to district data, 30 percent of all teachers who applied to work in CPS  since 2012 were black or Latino; about 35 percent of new hires since then were black or Latino. CPS officials said that due to technical issues, they are unable to provide yearly breakdowns by race of teacher applicants and those who made it onto a “quality pool” from which principals can choose.

TFA teachers have historically skewed white although the organization has made diverse recruitment a priority in recent years — and this year’s Chicago recruits are slightly more diverse than CPS hiring in general. Aneesh Sohoni, executive director of the group’s Chicago office, says nearly 45 percent of current TFA teachers in CPS identify as teachers of color, and nearly a quarter come from low-income families.

In addition, he says, TFA worked with district officials to identify high-needs areas, and “we try to match that need as best as possible.” More than half of the group’s teachers are certified in special education, bilingual education, teaching English as a second language (ESL) or early education, he added.

Similarly, Golden Apple recruits students who are interested in pursuing teaching certificates in hard-to-staff areas, including math, science, special education, bilingual education and ESL. Meanwhile, Van Winkle says that given the demographics of Grow Your Own recruits, many aspiring teachers are native Spanish speakers and pursue certificates in bilingual education or ESL.

District officials say about half of the vacancies at the start of the 2015-2016 school year were for teachers certified in special or bilingual education.

Teach For America’s shrinking footprint

The Board vote on the contracts comes during a standoff in contract negotiations between the district and the CTU, which has publicly called on CPS to diversify its teacher workforce by contracting with Grow Your Own and to reduce its contract with Teach For America. Union activists charge that the district’s relationship with Teach For America leads to under-trained teachers taking spots that should go to veterans.

First-year TFA teachers undergo intense training the summer before they start teaching but are not fully certified. They work under provisional teaching certificates while completing necessary coursework. Golden Apple and Grow Your Own teachers are fully certified.

CPS officials declined to say whether the union’s contract demands shaped the proposed contracts, which arose from a request for proposals issued last year for recruitment of diverse and high-needs teachers.

Under the proposed contracts, CPS could pay per-teacher costs of up to $5,500 to TFA, provided the teacher remains at CPS for at least two years; $6,000 for Grow Your Own teachers; and $8,000 for Golden Apple teachers. The differences in pricing reflect differences in the models and cost structures of the programs, district officials said.

Judging from the number of targeted participants, Teach For America would get a significantly smaller contract than it has in years past, district records show. In 2014 the Board approved a $1.3 million contract for the organization to produce 325 provisionally certified first-year teachers, and to provide support for another 245 second-year teachers — for a total of 570 during the 2014-2015 school year.

“It sounds like TFA has actually shrunk its Chicago footprint,” says Katie Osgood, a special education teacher and CTU delegate at Hughes elementary who has been publicly critical of the teacher training group for getting inexperienced teachers into schools at the expense of veterans. “That seems pretty major to me.”

One reason for the scaled back contract is that CPS no longer pays for TFA teachers placed in or coached at charter or contract schools, a practice the district has been scaling back in recent years. The organization now negotiates contracts directly with charter schools.

In addition, TFA’s presence in Chicago — and elsewhere in the U.S. — has shrunk in recent years due to a decline in the number of applicants. Organization leaders have said that the rebounding economy has given high-achieving college graduates more job choices. A smaller cohort in Chicago prompted the organization to let go of some of its coaching and support staff last summer.

“Economic trends and other organizations definitely recruiting and attracting social justice oriented folks is definitely playing a part,” says Sohoni.  “We are doing the best we can, looking at how we can increase the number of recruits.”

Grow Your Own’s struggle

The contract with Grow Your Own comes at a critical moment for the tiny organization, which faced tough criticism last year after a Chicago Tribune report disclosed that very few of its recruits make it through colleges of education and become teachers. The Tribune found that the program produced only about 80 teachers over the past decade, despite $20 million in state aid. The total number of Grow Your Own teachers across the state has since increased to 101, Van Winkle says.

Subsequently, Gov. Bruce Rauner moved to strip state dollars from the program last year, which in effect happened anyway because of the state budget impasse.

Supporters have counter that Grow Your Own works with low-income candidates — most of whom are minorities — who are often juggling work and family and struggle to complete college courses.

Lyons dismissed criticisms of the organization, calling it a “very diverse pipeline” for teacher applicants. Currently there are 43 graduates of the program who work as CPS teachers.

“This is a program that supplies a group of teacher candidates that are incredibly committed to CPS already,” he says. “They’re community members, many of them are parents, and they have already shown a commitment to teaching in CPS schools and in CPS communities that need more teachers, and certainly teachers of color.”

Still, the state budget impact has taken a toll on Grow Your Own. Van Winkle says the group has currently identified nearly 120 candidates interested in becoming teachers, but at the moment can afford to provide stipends for coursework and provide other guidance to just 36.

“There’s no doubt that the budget crisis is impacting our program, but we’re really excited about opportunities like this one with CPS to continue to grow,” she said.

Similarly, Golden Apple relies on state aid and Sayeed worries about the negative impacts of the state budget impasse on the nearly 600 students who are currently in the program, including many who rely on needs-based MAP grants.

Due in part  to the budget impasse, Golden Apple is seeking to diversify its funding streams by, for example, signing  contracts with other school districts and some charter networks. Historically, CPS has been Golden Apple’s only district client.

“At times like this, an organization attempts to be [even more innovative and efficient],” Sayeed says.

Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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