Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that places college graduates into some of the nation’s most troubled schools, plans to reduce its incoming teaching force in Memphis by about 40 percent this fall, a regional leader has confirmed.

The organization is projecting placements of 110 new recruits in Memphis-area schools during the 2015-16 school year, down from 185 last year.

The decline is consistent with national trends. As the economy recovers, TFA officials are seeing a decline in applicants from college seniors who are being offered more attractive jobs upon graduation.

“This is great news for the broader economic perspective but it’s not so great from the education impact perspective,” said regional TFA executive director Athena Turner, noting that other teacher training programs across the nation are experiencing similar dips.

The change should align with an anticipated decrease in student enrollment next year, said Sheila Redick, director of human capital for Shelby County Schools, which employs more than 8,000 traditional full-time teachers.

Founded in 1990, TFA recruits bright young graduates, provides them seven weeks of teacher training, and places them in low-performing and hard-to-staff urban schools – a strategy that’s had mixed results.

The organization brought its first 50 corps members to Memphis in 2006. Today, more than 340 members work in schools in Memphis. Approximately 280 alumni have stayed in Memphis after completing their two-year program. About 20 percent of TFA corps members are from Memphis.

TFA’s presence has not been without controversy. While school administrators in Memphis have struggled to find and keep qualified math and science teachers to work in some of its lowest-performing middle and high schools, local hiring of young, mostly white TFA members coincided with layoffs of many older black teachers amid significant budget cuts.

Local teachers’ union officials have maintained that TFA recruits aren’t qualified and equipped to teach students in low-income environments.

The district is required to pay TFA a $5,000 annual fee per recruit, most of which comes from a $90 million grant awarded to the district in 2009 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That money – designated for programs that improve teacher effectiveness in Memphis schools – soon will run out.

Of the 110 new TFA recruits projected for this fall, 60 would work in Shelby County Schools under a contract reviewed Tuesday night by the district’s school board. Last year, TFA placed 80 recruits in district schools and, at its peak, 200 recruits.

The remaining 50 new recruits would work next year in charter and state-run Achievement School District schools in Memphis.

If the projections play out, TFA would have a total of 300 corps members working in Memphis for their first or second year in the city.

The Shelby County School Board is expected to vote Feb. 24 on the TFA contract. Board members noted Tuesday night that funding TFA members takes resources away from training the district’s own full-time teachers. “When the grant is gone, it’s going to be a different analysis,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said.

Since its inception, Teach for America has been part of the national education conversation amid rapid changes.

“Over the last five years in Memphis, … education reform has gained a ton of momentum and attraction,” Turner said. “TFA is a big part of that. All of that has created a world where we’re much more focused on where our great teachers are, what are they doing, and how do we replicate that.”

A 2014 report by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showed that teachers who came through Memphis’ TFA program outperformed teachers from some traditional programs and were more effective than other beginning teachers in a range of subjects including math and biology – but fell short in preparing their students for fourth- and eighth-grade math exams.

Over the years, TFA has developed many young adult leaders and brought new energy into the communities where it operates, Turner said.

In Memphis, more than 92 percent of TFA corps members stay for their second year, and more than 60 percent of the organization’s graduates end up staying in the city and working in education in some capacity. By comparison, fewer than 82 percent of traditional first-year teachers stay after their first year.

“We’ve attracted a ton of folks to the profession who would’ve not otherwise joined,” Turner said.

Jon Alfuth, a 2011 TFA corps member who now works at The Soulsville Charter School and frequently blogs on education policies, said he was in graduate school when he became inspired by the organization’s public service mission. He’d always had an interest in teaching.

“I think I was looking for an opportunity … to act on my desire to give public service to kids who were deserving and needed quality teachers and that was definitely the opportunity that I was given,” said Alfuth, who taught math through TFA at Hamilton High School in Memphis.  

Alfuth said TFA recruits struggle with the same challenges as graduates with teaching degrees – for instance, a lack of training and classroom support. “TFA gets a lot of blame for this, but a lot of teachers are leaving by year five,” Alfuth said.

Turner is designing TFA’s regional five-year plan aimed toward greater diversity and teacher retention and possibly starting a five-year fellowship in which graduates receive a degree upon completion.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.