A waning number of applicants, coupled with a dramatic cut in state funds, is throwing into reverse Teach for America’s efforts to place teachers in public-school classrooms in Oklahoma.

The national program recruits college graduates and professionals to commit to a two-year stint in mostly low-income, struggling schools.

There will be 30 percent fewer Teach for America teachers in Oklahoma classrooms this fall, compared to last year, based on data provided by Teach for America. School districts still need teachers, but fewer applications are coming in. Nationally, applications to the program are down 35 percent over three years.

Like other education programs in the state, Teach for America lost funding this fiscal year, which began Friday. Its state appropriations were cut by 90 percent, from $2.5 million in 2016 to $250,000. The cut represents more than a quarter of the organization’s combined budgets in Oklahoma City and Tulsa offices, which provide teachers to districts in those and other cities.

Art Serna, Jr.
Art Serna, Jr.

Art Serna, Jr., executive director of Teach for America’s Oklahoma City division, said he expected to lose some funding, based on the state’s fiscal instability in the past year.

“We had in mind that there was going to be some sort of reduction,” Serna said. “It came in a lot larger and deeper than we expected.”

Oklahoma City and Tulsa are two of Teach for America’s highest priority cities to place new recruits, according to Teach for America, yet placements are down in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City, the state’s two largest school districts.

Tulsa Public Schools is receiving 52 first-year recruits through the program, from more than 100 two years ago. Oklahoma City Public Schools will have 68 total, compared with 141 two years ago.

Serna said state funds were previously used to expand the program to Lawton, Muskogee and Sapulpa. It’s uncertain if that expansion will be maintained based on current funding.

Teach for America Teachers

The total number of Teach for America teachers in Oklahoma is expected to drop by 30 percent for the 2016-2017 school year, the organization reports. The numbers below include both first- and second-year teachers overseen by the Tulsa-area office, which also includes Muskogee and Sapulpa schools, and the Oklahoma City-area office, which also includes Lawton schools.

Teach for America Office
Teachers in 2014-2015 School Year
Teachers in 2015-2016 School YearTeachers in 2016-2017 School Year (est.)
Tulsa Area210235160
Oklahoma City Area

Six new recruits are heading to Lawton Public Schools, a tiny Band-Aid on a gaping teacher shortage that has left the district with 180 vacancies.

“It’s not a majority by any means, but when you have so many to replace, any help is welcomed,” said Jean Hastings, human resources director for Lawton Public Schools.

The state Board of Education in June trimmed $38 million from the $130 million public school activities fund. Eleven programs lost all funding, and others, like Teach for America, were reduced. Dollars were prioritized for programs in early literacy, SoonerStart early intervention, alternative education, early childhood education and implementing the new academic standards.

Serna said unless Teach for America can increase philanthropic donations, it will not be able to continue the level of work it does for school districts.

“It’s going to have a really detrimental impact if we cannot raise those funds elsewhere,” he said.

Teach for America has been welcomed by school districts in Oklahoma and other states because of its commitment to find and train high-quality, motivated college graduates and place them in schools where teacher shortages are often severe. The organization provides support and feedback to its “corps members” during the school year.

Critics say too many Teach for America teachers don’t continue teaching after two years, adding to instability in schools. Others are critical of the finders fee Teach for America charges schools — around $4,000 per recruit.

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