Teach for America (TFA) will go before the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) school board on Nov. 9 to ask for a renewed contract. At the expiration of their current three-year contract, TFA would like a five-year contract to work in concert with SAISD’s five-year goals, rolled out by superintendent Pedro Martinez earlier this year.

Laura Saldivar-Luna, courtesy photo.
Laura Saldivar-Luna. Courtesy photo.

Laura Saldivar-Luna executive director of Teach for America San Antonio, has high hopes for enhanced partnerships with the district with Martinez at the helm. At the June convocation of new TFA teachers, Martinez took the stage with Mark Larson, CEO of KIPP San Antonio, and in shaking hands signaled a new day of collective impact in San Antonio.

Saldivar-Luna hopes to begin that new day with the same support TFA has enjoyed in the past working with SAISD. Illustrative of that support, SAISD’s head of human relations has worked with Saldivar-Luna to produce the presentation showing the impact of TFA’s presence in the district.

“Every time we’ve gone before the board, we’ve gotten a unanimous positive vote,” Saldivar-Luna said.

It’s a relationship everyone values, and one that Saldivar-Luna hopes to see expanded. TFA San Antonio currently has 150 corp members and 250 alumni in San Antonio spread across 64 campuses, with SAISD as their primary target district. To continue growth Saldivar-Luna would like to diversify the organization’s donor base to include partnerships at all levels. Currently the $4.3 million budget is made possible through a handful of major donors. As individuals, community businesses, and families realize the mission and impact of TFA, Saldivar-Luna is confident that they will see the value of the investment.

A five-year contract would be a strong acknowledgement of not only the good work that has been done, but the potential for even greater systemic revitalization.

Nov. 11 will mark five years of Teach For America’s presence in San Antonio. An event at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts will celebrate the remarkable stories of passionate individuals investing in area schools, as well as turning the community’s eyes to a bright future of wide sweeping transformation made possible by vision and leadership at every level. 

“Right now, people see TFA as a provider of great teachers,” Saldivar-Luna said.

No one can deny the influence a single passionate teacher can have on the life of an individual student. However, if TFA takes one consistent criticism it is the two-year tenure of its TFA corp members. Critics claim that TFA teachers are bright-eyed idealists who stick around only long enough to get disillusioned with the public school system, maybe start a passion project, and then leave it to diminish in their absence.

Saldivar-Luna said this could not be further from the truth about what’s happening in the TFA network. On the contrary, she said while some TFA corp members might not stay on their original campus, some do. Others go into administrative roles, public leadership, and school support programs. Some go on to lead charter schools.

Rogers ES assistant principal at Virginia Silva. photo courtesy of Teach for America
Rogers ES assistant principal at Virginia Silva. Photo courtesy of Teach for America.

Some local examples include:

  • Jessica Castanon Maurer — taught with TFA in New Orleans and is now director of community partnerships for P-16 Plus.
  • Constantine Polites — taught with TFA in the Rio Grande Valley and is now principal of IDEA South Flores College Prep.
  • Abby Morton Garland — taught with TFA in the Rio Grande Valley  and is now Co-School Leader, KIPP University Prep.
  • Vanessa Lacoss Hurd — taught with TFA in Houston and is now CEO of the DoSeum.

Saldivar-Luna points to Tafolla Middle School, her alma mater, as a budding example of the infrastructure for collective impact TFA wants to build. At Tafolla Middle School, six TFA corp-members are currently serving their two-year commitments. Three more have stayed on from previous cohorts. The school counselor is a TFA alum, and principal Jeff Price is the first KIPP director to make the move into SAISD. According to Saldivar-Luna, the loss of Price actually encouraged Larson, whose vision was for wide-sweeping transformation in the city, not simply a strong network of KIPP schools.

In the neighborhood around Tafolla, Saldivar-Luna identified TFA alum at several community institutions including LiftFund, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and San Anto Cultural Arts. On the district level, Assistant Superintendent Angelica Romero is a TFA alum, as is District 1 Board Representative Steve Lecholop.

As these various players connect, sharing the passion and vision of their TFA training, they bring varied resources and perspective, but a shared passion garnered from their time in the TFA corp.

Lebon James, teacher and administrator at Sam Houston HS. Former TFA Corp member. Photo courtesy of TFA
Lebon James, teacher and administrator at Sam Houston HS. Former TFA Corp member. Photo courtesy of TFA.

“They have a fire in their belly because they’ve seen the inefficiency and the injustices,” Saldivar-Luna said.

From day one, TFA corp members are taught to see the systemic inequality built into the public school system. At the June convocation, Dr. Christine Drennon presented her research showing how real estate values drive inequity across the city.

“Our neighborhoods were designed with inequity in mind,” Saldivar-Luna said.

It makes sense then, that some TFA alum would set their sights outside the classroom, taking aim at one of the diverse challenges facing school districts. Those two years are not meant to be the sum total of their contribution. According to Saldivar-Luna, those two years are the immersion training for a lifetime of education advocacy and activism.

In their two years in the classroom, bright-eyed idealists are transformed into effective leaders. They experience the emotional journey of committed teachers, who battle burn out and discouragement on a yearly cycle. They see committed kids derailed by peer pressure and lack of family support. They see desperate families trying to educate their children in spite of overwhelming hurdles.

If anything, whatever disillusionment TFA corp members experience drives them out into the community with the same rallying cry that the teachers themselves have been shouting, largely unheard, for years: We cannot do it alone. We need the whole system to work.

Contrary to the critics, Saldivar-Luna and the leadership of SAISD don’t see TFA as the alternative to traditional teachers. They are not the leaner, meaner “teachers 2.0.” TFA corp members, in their two years in the classroom, are the school systems’ best chance to say to future business leaders, school board members, and policy makers, “This is what we’re up against. This is how it feels to educate in America.”

Saldivar-Luna looks to Washington DC, where TFA alum have permeated every level of the neighborhood education systems, into the final sphere, policy making and institutional power. She sees the successes in increased enrollment in public schools and charter schools as an example of what can occur when the mission to educate our nation’s children takes root in every sector of society.

*Top image: Gladys Hernandez, seen here working with TFA at Bowden ES, is now a STEM coordinator at the DoSeum. Photo courtesy of TFA.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.