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Associated Press, Published August 02 2013

Teach for America trainees face tough Minnesota test

ST. PAUL – Dozens of Teach for America members looking to get placed in Minnesota classrooms are facing tougher scrutiny from the state.

The Minnesota Board of Teaching was meeting Friday to decide whether Teach for America trainees get a waiver from the state’s licensing requirement, and earn licenses on the job in classrooms this fall. The board has granted the waivers frequently in previous years, but it’s taken a tougher line this year. Minnesota Public Radio News reports that the state’s largest teachers union is opposed to the variances.

Teach for America means to provide a path to the classroom for people with bachelor’s degrees but who don’t want to spend another year obtaining a teaching degree. Members can apply for a full Minnesota teaching license after two years of training and working in an urban school.

“I think this group is among the best prepared and strongest right out of the gate in terms of what I saw them doing with their kids over the summer,” said Crystal Brakke, executive director of Teach for American in the Twin Cities.

It’s not the traditional route to the classroom, but Teach for America contends that its method is a good way to put a smart, energetic and more diverse group of teachers into classrooms. Part of the program’s aim is to close the achievement gap between students from certain racial minorities and their better-performing white counterparts. The gap in Minnesota is among the biggest in the nation.

The state’s teachers union, Education Minnesota, takes issue with the group’s methods.

“When you have somebody on your team that you’re worried about – whether they’re prepared or whether they have the tools that are necessary to do well – that’s a concern to everyone,” union president Denise Specht said.

In June, the Board of Teaching denied a group of 48 license variances for Teach for America. The group and its supporters contend that reflected the influence of the union, which is a strong political ally of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

But Ryan Vernosh, a Teach for American trainee who’s also an Education Minnesota member, said the board isn’t holding trainees to a tougher standard than anyone else.

Vernosh, who was Minnesota’s teacher of the year in 2010, said the board must ask specific questions to determine if a variance is warranted.

“What are the individual cases?” he asked. “What are the needs for schools that show an express need to have a non-licensed teacher working with our kids?”

Paula Cole, 31, submitted one of the variance requests. She was hired by Minneapolis Public Schools to teach first grade at a Spanish immersion school, but can’t start her job until the board decides her case.

She said it’s been a nerve-racking experience for her and her colleagues. The board’s decisions could come down to whether a job like Cole’s could instead be filled by a teacher with a traditional license.

“I am worried for me and I’m worried for them,” Cole said. “But I’m also hopefully optimistic that it will all work out in the end.”