Teachers wary of recruitment group

Justin Brecht came to Las Vegas six years ago to teach at Sunrise Acres Elementary School, where 80 percent of the students live in poverty.

Brecht, who studied political science at Colorado State University, joined Teach For America soon after graduation. The group is committed to ending educational inequity by placing recent college graduates into high-needs schools or hard-to-fill teaching jobs such as special education, math and science.

Now that teaching jobs are fewer because of the economic downturn, Brecht wonders whether the group is still needed.

"Why are they still coming here?" he asked.

Brecht, who just completed his sixth year of teaching as a fifth-grade teacher at Mendoza Elementary School, east of Nellis Boulevard near Sahara Avenue, worries about his long-term job security.

The Clark County School District had to cut 540 teaching jobs to help close a $145 million budget shortfall for 2010-11. His employment for next year is secure, but Brecht has heard that more job cuts might be necessary in the future.

"If I find out that a Teach For America (teacher) was placed in fifth grade and I lose my job as a fifth-grade teacher, I'm thinking, 'How is that OK?'" said Brecht, who has been asked to mentor a Teach For America teacher next year.

"I don't want to in any way disrespect them because I owe my career to them," Brecht said. "I'm kind of caught by how I feel about them. I appreciate everything they did and what they continue to do for students. They do work hard. You hear a lot of principals say, 'We love our Teach For America teachers.'"

Allison Serafin, executive director of Teach For America in the Las Vegas Valley, said the group plans to place 50 teachers next year. Some will be teaching Head Start or at Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, an independent charter school.

She said Teach For America teachers are subject to the same collective bargaining agreement rules that apply to other teachers. The contract is negotiated by the Clark County Education Association, the union that represents district teachers.

The seniority rules make it unlikely that new teachers would replace more experienced teachers.

"I would like to dispel the myth that our teachers would take their jobs. They would follow whatever the (labor) agreement is for staffing," Serafin said. "Our teachers would be filling vacancies, classes taught by subs, long-term subs, hard-to-fill subject areas."

In its six years in Clark County, Teach For America has provided 308 teachers. The group has provided seven math teachers and 17 science teachers for middle or high school, according to district data.

Forty-three Teach For America fellows have taught English in middle or high school, a subject that is much easier to fill. One Teach For America placement has taught history for five years at O'Callaghan Middle School, near Hollywood Boulevard and Washington Avenue.

Most Teach For America placements teach special education, English as a second language or in elementary school.

Teach For America first came to Clark County in 2004 when the district was struggling to keep pace with a booming population. Its annual placements have dropped steeply since the 2005-06 year when it placed 66 teachers. This past school year, Teach For America only placed 36 teachers in a district that employs 18,000 teachers.

More than half of Teach For America teachers have stayed in the district beyond their initial two-year commitments.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes has said he is worried that the district might not be able to find other full-time jobs for the 540 elementary teachers displaced by the increased class sizes in grades one through three . He has said the district might have to hire some of them as substitutes to keep them employed.

Serafin said there is always some uncertainty over jobs. New Teach For America applicants sometimes wait until late August to find out whether they will be teaching in Clark County.

Because the nation's fifth-largest school system, which has 308,000 students, has so many staffing needs, "I think it would be fair to say that there's a good shot that there will be placements in our high poverty schools," Serafin said.

Not all Teach For America placements wind up at high-needs schools. The group has placed a special-education teacher at the Las Vegas Academy, a magnet performing arts school in downtown Las Vegas.

Because Teach For America helps the district fill jobs, the district compensates the group at $2,500 per teacher per year for the two years of a placement's commitment, according to its memorandum of understanding with the district for 2006-2011.

This fee is subject to negotiation from year to year. District officials could not answer on Friday whether the fee is still in effect.

The district and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas also help Teach For America teachers get their professional licenses through alternative programs.

Locally, Teach For America has produced leaders such as Dottie Smith, who is now the high school principal at Agassi Prep, and Rebecca Alleman, who was the district's Special Education New Teacher of the Year in 2008-09.

Serafin recently served on the governor's Blue Ribbon Task Force for preparation of an application for Race to the Top, a competitive grant worth $175 million for Nevada from the U.S. Department of Education. One of its recommendations was to expand Teach For America in Southern Nevada, which Serafin said was not her suggestion.

Some local teachers grouse that Teach For America keeps teacher salaries low by recruiting a fresh pool of teachers willing to work at entry-level wages. Wages for district teachers start at $35,000 for entry-level teachers and go to a maximum of $70,000 for teachers with 14 years experience and doctorates.

Local teacher wages are below the national average, according to a survey by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

"Salaries are not determined by Teach For America," Serafin said. "We fill classrooms with talent in our most high-need schools in the community. Given that our high-need schools are filled with vacancies and subs, I would be more concerned about the access to the effective talent that our children need."

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.