Carole Robertson Center Credit: Photo by John Booz

Teach for America, the national program that sends top-tier college graduates to teach in high-needs public schools, has a new mission: Early childhood education.

Chicago is the largest effort, with 21 Teach for America teachers now committed for two years to community-based early childhood programs on the South and West sides. Next year, 30 additional teachers will be placed in community preschools. (The initiative is also in place in Washington, D.C., and New York City.)

It’s all a response to the need for high-quality early childhood teachers in community preschools, says Teach for America’s leadership.

Josh Anderson, executive director of Teach for America in Chicago, points out that research on child development and academics “suggests that preschool is an area where we can make a profound difference. We can give children the tools early, so they don’t fall behind.” Community-based centers consistently have a hard time attracting and retaining the best teachers, especially when the district offers higher wages and shorter work days.

This year, the state’s Preshool for All program was unable to open 58 classrooms in community-based organizations because the centers could not find certified early childhood teachers, which the program requires. CPS does not have a shortage of certified early childhood teachers.

In addition to teachers, Anderson adds, the initiative’s goal is to create a pipeline of early childhood advocates. “In K-12 education, we have alumni who are teachers, principals, who work in central office,” says Anderson. “Who takes over when Maria Whelan (director of Illinois Action for Children and a well-known, veteran advocate) eventually steps down? Germinating future leaders is a solution.”

Moving into preschool has brought a new set of challenges to Teach for America teachers. Classroom management has proven to be a particular sticking point, as has teaching structure and student needs, all of which are very different from K-12 education.

Still, getting Teach for America teachers has been a win-win situation, says Gail Nelson, executive director of the Carole Robertson Center. New teachers (the center has eight) are learning from experts who run successful early childhood education programs, and the preschools are getting a teacher committed to staying for at least two years—the length of time a child stays in preschool. “And if they want to stay, great,” Nelson says.

Teach for America asked Dominican University, which trains its K-12 teachers, to create a second, similarly structured program specifically for early childhood; there is a summer institute before the start of school, and when school begins, teachers take classes at night and teach during the day.

The content, however, is different.  Thus far, the biggest challenge has been classroom management.

“You cannot send a child to the office. That is not an option for a 3-year-old,” says Kimberly Garrett, assistant professor at Dominican University. “We’ve had to work with them on how to manage this group, and not use traditional techniques.”

Pacing lessons is critical in early childhood education. “With 3- and 4-year-olds, you have to get to the point and engage them. If I’m sitting too long at circle time, I’d want to bite someone, too,” Garrett says.

Teachers receive training in classroom management in the summer institute, but Garrett says they need more. “It should be woven through the coursework throughout the program.”  
Teachers have also had to adjust to team-teaching, the norm in early childhood programs.

“In elementary school, the lead teacher is the boss. In early childhood, the paradigm is shared responsibility, and the roles are interchangeable. Children can go to any of the adults in the classroom. They all take turns teaching, caring and cleaning up,” says Garrett.

Teach for America candidates, who traditionally are trained to step in and lead the classroom, “were not fully prepared to share a classroom,” Nelson says. “But we made sure they knew they were expected to work together and they were not the experts. It really has gone smoother than if we’d had a Type 04 [certified preschool teacher] from somewhere else. They are very receptive.”

Finally, Teach for America teachers have to know more than just how to teach young children. “Teach for America prepared me to understand education and standards,” says Kaleen Enke, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds at the Robertson Center. “Here, you need to understand things like family-style meals, toileting and family relationships.”

Teach for America is still searching for a way to assess the new program’s impact. “We are a data-driven organization,” says Anderson. “And figuring out what that means in an early childhood setting, with the help of great partners at the centers, we are still working through that.”

Whether the centers will be able to retain Teach for America teachers, or lose them to the lure of higher pay at public schools, is anyone’s guess.

“Once they find out about all the accountability measures at CPS, some may stay,” Garrett says. She notes one potential advantage to community preschools: “They may feel they can be child-centered without walking a tightrope.”

Call Debra Williams at (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to

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