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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

For the First Time, Milwaukee's Teach for America Corps Will Train In Milwaukee

Rachel Morello
New TFA Milwaukee corps member Reginald Kirby runs through a review activity during summer school at MPS' Greenfield Bilingual School.

It’s no secret that Milwaukee, like many cities across the U.S., is facing a teacher shortage – due in part to massive retirements after Act 10.

Several local organizations are working to fill gaps in classrooms. One such group: Teach for America, a nonprofit that trains college grads to teach in public and charter schools. Milwaukee’s TFA branch recruits and prepares hundreds of prospective teachers to help out in city classrooms.

And this year – for the first time – they'll be trained in Milwaukee.

"It just made a lot of sense to have our folks exposed to our teachers, our leaders, our schools, our history"

As Reginald Kirby paces through two rows of desks at MPS’ Greenfield Bilingual School, he sounds like an old pro interacting with students. But, he’s actually pretty new to this teaching thing. He’s one of about 70 new members of this year’s “corps” – the incoming group of teachers and aides out of TFA Milwaukee.

Come fall, corps members will teach – although they’ll be supervised. So this summer, they’re getting ready for a two-year term of service within MPS. That means learning how to develop lesson plans, and coordinate classroom activities -- as well as what Kirby is doing now: teaching a few hours of summer school each day.

This is TFA’s “Summer Institute,” an 8-week training session for new corps members.

Usually, groups from several regions gather in one city to train together. Milwaukee corps members have traditionally traveled to Houston or Chicago for their introductory sessions. But after nearly a decade, TFA leaders pushed for a change; so this summer, for the first time, the corps members who will teach here, will also be trained here.

“It just made a lot of sense to have our folks exposed to our teachers, our leaders, our schools, our history,” says Walter Bond, TFA Milwaukee’s executive director. ”The dollars that required to make this happen are ones that are going to be recycled in our community. [And] MPS is home to many brilliant educators who have been around for a while. We thought that that was a wealth of knowledge and expertise that we couldn’t not tap into.”

TFA pairs each corps member with an MPS teacher-mentor who is with them in the classroom throughout the entire summer. Teachers like Astrid Wagner -- she’s taught in MPS for the last 27 years, but this is her first year as a TFA mentor.

And she says, she sees the benefits in helping aspiring educators – for folks like herself, as well as the district at large.

"We're losing a lot of our veteran teachers, and we need to replace them with good teachers."

It’s nice to see that love of teaching and their positive outlook – I hope they keep that,” Wagner says with a smile. “We’re losing a lot of our veteran teachers, and we need to replace them with good teachers. We need teachers who are passionate, who care about the kids. But we need to also give them the skills.”

Skill development is crucial to TFA’s mission. Not every corps member has a background – or even a degree – in education, a point where many critics hit the organization.

But TFA leaders say that’s why a successful summer institute is so important. The training -- – as well as the introduction to Milwaukee – is crucial for a productive year.

And corps members like Chicago native Karina Hernandez say they feel they're getting prepared for the unique challenges of an urban school district.

“We have so much support from everybody,” Hernandez says. “All of the TFA staff [are] so supportive, that it really helped make us feel comfortable.”

Corps members have three more weeks of training, before they head to the individual MPS schools where they’ll work. They’ll spend the next two years there – and maybe even help train their new peers, next summer.

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