Who is Teach For America in Austin?
by Lindsay Perlmutter Fitzpatrick
I am compelled to write this because I was disappointed by the tone of the recent article in the Austin Chronicle last week, “Reforming AI$D,” by Richard Whittaker. There was a lot in the article, but what I want to address is the limited characterization of Teach For America. Whittaker’s article reduced TFA alumni who are dedicated public servants to a false stereotype and did not honor their contributions to our community.
I grew up in Austin, attended Austin ISD schools, did my student teaching at Austin High, and taught Social Studies for seven years – two in the Bronx, four at Akins High School, and one at the Austin ISD In-District Charter IDEA Allan. I was a member of teachers’ unions/organizations for the majority of my seven years, including Education Austin. I serve on the AISD Boundary Advisory Committee and I am a proud TFA alumnus.
Our alumni are much more than people who teach for two years and go off to law school, as Louis Malfaro described. Of the 537 TFA alumni in Austin, 313 or 58% work in the field of education and 127 of them are teachers.[i] Only 3% of TFA Austin alumni work in the field of law. Alumni like Christine who uses her law degree to advocate for the legal rights of special education students. Another group of TFA alumni law students started and run the Texas Law School Youth Court program, which teaches students at Webb Middle School the power of youth-led restorative justice to prevent students from entering the school-to-prison pipeline and keep them in school where they belong.
TFA alumni in Austin are living out Teach For America’s theory of change. TFA recruits a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for at least two years in a low-income community. TFA corps members teach in urban and rural communities across the country (Austin is not an option for these first two years). I am also proud to share that the ratio of current TFA corps members identifying as people of color is 50%, more than double that of teachers nationwide.[ii] After the two years, alumni work to end educational inequity for the rest of their lives through their professional and civic action. Nearly 90% of all TFA Alumni work either in education or with low-income communities full-time.
The TFA alumni who have chosen Austin as their home are making important and meaningful contributions to our schools in Central Texas. Many grew up here or went to UT and have long ties to our community. The hundreds I have talked with are deeply committed to ensuring every single child in Austin has access to an excellent public education, regardless of their zip code. Our alumni are working as teachers, principals, and leaders in Austin ISD, Breakthrough Austin, KIPP Austin Public Schools, Round Rock ISD, Del Valle ISD, Austin Achieve Public Schools, Pflugerville ISD, Montessori For All, the University of Texas at Austin, IDEA Public Schools, Manor ISD, SEDL, the Texas Education Agency, Region XIII, Leander ISD, and many other organizations committed to improving education for all kids in Central Texas.
Additionally, by focusing on the national debate and making grand accusations, Whittaker takes our focus off of the really important questions we need to tackle affecting our students like…
- How can we close the huge racial and economic gap in college readiness rates that exists in AISD (78% for White students, 27% for African American students, 39% for Hispanic students, and 33% for economically disadvantaged students)? [iii]
- How can we continue to improve our graduation rates in Central Texas for low-income students (67% in 2003 to 84% in 2013) as we work to ensure that a high school diploma is aligned with college expectations?[iv]
- How might we open a true dialogue with parents about why they are choosing public charter schools and what traditional public districts can do to better meet the expectations of this group of parents?
- How can we prepare more low income students for success in higher education? According to the Texas Tribune, only 6% of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds earn a postsecondary certificate or degree within six years of graduating from high school.[v]
I welcome the constructive tackling of the complex education issues facing Austin and just ask that we honor and respect the many committed education leaders, including TFA alumni, who are working tirelessly every day to end educational inequity in our community. The challenges we face are too great and the stakes are too high for us to disparage dedicated individuals who share the same ultimate goal of access to a world-class education for all kids in Austin.
Lindsay Perlmutter Fitzpatrick is on staff at Teach For America leading the group of TFA Alumni that live in Central Texas.
[i] Working in education is defined as having a (self-reported) profession in education (e.g. working in a school or district/Charter Management Organization) and/or studying education full-time in graduate school. Data reflects 85% of our total alumni population. Data is drawn from alumni surveys and alumni submissions since 2008 and Austin data also reflects information from 79% of the Austin alumni who completed their 2014 Alumni Survey.
[iii] Texas Education Agency, Academic Excellence Indicator System Report, 2011-2012
[iv] E3 Alliance, D3: Spotlight Central Texas High School Graduation, October 29, 2014