08/21/2013 11:03 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Community-Centered Schools: A Challenge and Opportunity for Teach For America

This is a guest post from my colleague Mary Kingston, Public Policy Manager of the Coalition for Community Schools and TFA Alumnae.

There are few things that we can do better alone than together, and education is no exception. Today, teachers often feel alone in trying to simultaneously provide their students the best academic experience possible while offering enriching opportunities and addressing all the needs students carry with them to school.

Teachers and students should not feel alone anymore; we need the entire community involved to support them, not just because teachers and students need this support, but because it's the right thing to do.

When I say community, I mean students' families, local businesses, community- and faith-based organizations, and local elected officials along with other community leaders. The problem is not that our families and community members are not eager to support their teachers; it's that too often they haven't been invited to do so in a thorough, respectful, and systematic way.

When I taught middle and high school English in Oakland, CA through Teach For America (TFA), a nonprofit that recruits top college graduates to teach in underperforming schools for two years in an effort to close the achievement gap, I experienced this school-community disconnect. While my school offered some community-based partnerships, including tutors from U.C. Berkeley and some mental health services, it was clear that overall we fell short in providing what our students needed and deserved.

With TFA's focus as an organization on academic results, I felt that it failed to recognize and promote school-community partnerships that could have significantly enriched our students' school experiences as well as decreased our stress level as beginning teachers in feeling that we had to do this all on our own.

Last month, about eighty people gathered in Chicago for the first national summit of its kind to protest current practices of TFA. This summit occurred as part of a national conference called Free Minds, Free People. Summit organizers sought to bring to light the harmful impact they feel that TFA has on students and their communities, and to talk through ways they could remedy this worrisome trend in their respective communities.

In a phone interview I conducted, a few of the summit organizers noted their concern that TFA is positioned as "central in the corporate movement through a market-driven ideology vs. a community-driven approach." Summit participants included Teach For America alumni, students, community activists, parents both with children in schools with Teach For America corps members and parents of Teach For America alumni, professors of education, and traditionally credentialed teachers, among others.

One of the comments the summit organizers made particularly resonated with me as a TFA alumnae. They noted TFA's insistence on an "individualist culture" that places the responsibility of closing the achievement gap solely on the teacher and the student, while ignoring the pervasive opportunity gap that schools face through inequitable resources due to poverty and the broader cultural and societal influences that have increasingly contributed to this inequity.

As Hannah Sadtler, a TFA alumnae describes it, "It was all about how I was doing as a teacher and how my students were doing on tests, so my and their progress were judged on this one measure...[ it sends the message that] you as the individual didn't work hard enough if you don't succeed. While I believe that we need individual effort to succeed, it's not the reason we have these gaps and inequitable schools in this country."

The summit organizers described TFA's practice to only look at test scores as "dehumanizing" to corps members, students, and families, and that "TFA corps members and alumni [at the summit] had a lot of stories about how painful it was to be in that role and not able to support their students adequately with also so much pressure." Not just TFA teachers were affected by this, however: many summit attendees including students, parents of TFA alumni, and community leaders shed tears of frustration in recounting their experiences.

So what do the summit organizers want to happen? They want to push back against TFA's approach and promote--separate from TFA--a community-centered approach to education where the school and community are not only strongly connected but also strongly supportive of each other. Through this approach, teachers and students would no longer feel that their success is solely measured by test scores and entirely up to them, but rather that success goes beyond test scores to embrace students' social, emotional, physical, civic as well as cognitive development that stems from a strong and dedicated partnership between school and community.

The summit organizers indicated that their progress toward this goal may not be as public or immediate as people want, but assured me that they are mobilizing communities in a truly grassroots way to get there, and though that will take time, it's the right way to do it. They are currently planning an October conference for their next convening.

As a TFA alumnae, I remain supportive of TFA's mission to ensure that all students receive an excellent education, but it cannot be achieved separate from communities, or at the expense of them. If we are truly committed to achieving educational equity, we must include students' families and communities as key partners in supporting, enriching, and adding meaning to their learning and development. Only then will we have an army strong enough to truly end educational inequity.

Special thanks to the following organizers of the summit who contributed to the interview: Ashana Bigard, Ruth Idakula, Hannah Sadtler, and Rebecca Radding.