Teach for America broke ground when it opened a new chapter this fall in San Diego, but it was a tough sell.

The idea behind TFA is pretty straightforward. Take college grads, train them as teachers and then embed them for at least two years in underserved, low-income communities. Since 1990 TFA has amassed an alumni network 32,000 strong.

The idea of opening a local TFA chapter had been kicked around for years, without advancing. Jack McGrory, former city manager of San Diego, said that after his daughter joined TFA he got hooked on the idea of recruiting bright college grads to teach in inner-city schools.

McGrory initiated much of the conversation in San Diego, but said at first he didn’t find a very receptive audience. “Initially we were pretty stiffly rebuffed by the district,” he said.

Historically, unions have resisted TFA, in part because it brings in new teachers who can compete with educators already in the district. Locally, the tension is underscored by the fact that not so long ago, the San Diego Unified school board voted to lay off over 1,500 staff members.

But to cast unions as TFA’s only opponents is too simplistic. Some of the sharpest criticism has been leveled by members of its own alumni.

It’s this context that makes San Diego Unified’s decision to green-light the TFA chapter in the region all the more interesting, especially because school board trustee and labor leader Richard Barrera signed off on the plan.

So what happened? Well, McGrory said, “We realized we needed to hire an executive director and we knew he had to be local.”

Enter David Lopez. Lopez grew up in Little Italy and North Park, and attended San Diego Charter School. After graduating from UCSD, he became a TFA corps member in Houston.

After he was hired in June 2012, Lopez pounded pavement. He called principals, met with Barrera and Superintendent Cindy Marten, asked questions and listened.

It paid off. The deal he struck with the San Diego Unified school board goes like this: TFA teachers can only apply for open positions. If district teachers already qualify for the jobs, they get first dibs. If not, TFAers are eligible, but they have to interview for the gig just like anyone else.

This year, Teach for America has 19 teachers in San Diego – four within San Diego Unified. Through what’s known as an “intern” credential, they’re allowed to teach while they take education courses at San Diego State University. After completing master-level coursework, and other testing requirements, they earn a “cleared,” bona fide teaching certificate.

The seed money for the program’s first year came from a hodgepodge of contributors, including Price Charities, the Parker Foundation and Irwin Jacobs. (Disclosure: Price Charities, the Parker Foundation and Jacobs are all major donors to Voice of San Diego).

I sat down with Lopez to discuss some of the challenges he faced bringing Teach for America to San Diego and what he learned in the process. Here are portions from the interview, edited for length and clarity.

The teachers union opposed Teach for America in San Diego. Was that a part of why Teach for America didn’t come here sooner?

Well, I think it was much more complex than like one particular hurdle. Basically what I did when I first showed up, I went on a six-month listening tour and tried to sit down with anyone and everyone involved in education in San Diego and just asked: What’s going on here? What’s working? What needs more work?

Traditionally, Teach for America would just have folks that are a part of a national team visit somewhere, and maybe over the course of two or three visits in a year try to figure out: Is there a desire for a region to have Teach for America in their community?

I was one of few people that Teach for America actually hired to be on the ground 24-7 essentially, dedicated to one specific region before launching. I think that that also contributed greatly to us knowing what the community wanted if Teach for America was going to be a partner.

What did you find the community wanted?

Well, for one, they wanted a partner. A genuine partner that was going to come in and say “OK, lots of great things happening in San Diego already, lots of very impressive, dedicated leaders and organizations already working on the issue of educational equity. Where’s some chance for us to act on it?”

Teach for America has almost 24 years of experience being excessively focused on educational equity, across 48 different regions, and has provided a lot of lessons and best practices and such. I asked how we could bring those assets to the table in San Diego, but in a way that’s complementing all the great work that’s already happening.

Folks were very honest and said, “If Teach for America wants to come and partner with us, great. But if you all want to come in here and pretend like you have all the answers, like you’re the answer to the problem, like you’re the silver bullet, then don’t even bother.”

And I totally got that. I think that is a generally common culture in San Diego. We want partners; we don’t want anyone to come in, trumpeting themselves as, like, the thing. We want folks to come in and see what’s working, what needs some work, and to say let’s do it together in a way where we’re contributing to the existing efforts. Once folks started seeing that we were committed to that approach, I think that’s one of the things that really started to shift the tide.

It’s my understanding that Richard Barrera helped open the door for you here. How did you enlist him?

The reason I never go with the us-versus-them concept – you know, unions verses Teach for America – is because so many times, the folks that really care about unions care about the same things that I care about: the importance of supporting teachers; the importance of access to resources for students, despite where they might be growing up or how much money their parents are making; partnerships and collaboration; diversity is important when it comes to our teacher force and our school and district leadership.

There’s all these things that I found myself really agreeing on with many folks across San Diego despite their political affiliation and whether they’re working with the union or not working with the union. I decided to focus on those, not on the points of disagreement.

If Teach for America has evolved, so to speak, do you differ from its previous philosophies?

Yes. One of the biggest ones was this listening tour approach. Five years ago, it would’ve been very likely that Teach for America would have shown up to a new region a lot more adamant in its own approach. And I can’t blame the organization, they’ve had tremendous success in terms of growth of the program, growth of funding, they had some really eye-catching new stories. They were riding high. And they’d come in somewhere and say, ‘Look, we have a lot of proven success. So we’re coming to offer that proven success here. Let’s go.” Very gung-ho, right?

Are you talking about the idea of coming into a community and saying, “We’re here to save you?”

It’s like the concept of listen before leading. Yes, we want to play a leadership role in the effort for educational equity in San Diego. But we need to do a lot of our homework first in listening to our partners and local leaders before we can say that we even know what we can offer.

In the past, we haven’t always lived up to what are now our core values of respect and humility, and we haven’t always genuinely listened to a community at length before saying, “These are the ways that we think we can contribute.”

What are some of the myths that you commonly come across?

I think one of the biggest myths that I hear in San Diego is that our teachers had reserved positions. That somehow a deal was crafted as to where (our teachers were) guaranteed jobs. And, having actually had to do the work myself, and my teachers, of calling principals, sending them emails, doing all the work that went into finding the positions then having our corps members have to interview for them – knowing all that work that went in there, it’s one of those that tends to rub me the wrong way. Because I recognize that it certainly wasn’t the case that positions were reserved by our teachers.

I think another is that everyone at Teach for America thinks that the union is the problem. One of the things that we know now more than ever about our alumni is that there’s a broad diversity in their opinions. You have pretty much every opinion you can think about with regard to education. So anyone who would like to say that TFA is like a monolith when it comes to its opinion about what is and isn’t working in education, I think hasn’t had a chance to interact with TFA folks enough.

How about the idea of “Here come these kids. They take jobs for a couple years, and then they’re gone”?

So, I think again, myth. Sort of. It’s a myth that this concept of a high attrition rate, you know teachers leaving the profession, is only true of Teach for America. But when we look at the attrition rate across all teachers, regardless of how they came into the profession, the attrition rate is extraordinarily high no matter what.

If we zoom out, and we look at the way that entire schools and districts and government structures, communities, if we look at how those big system pieces work, what is it that is making that attrition rate for teachers so high? And how can we continue to push in the right direction to where a teacher can stay in the profession for a very long time and deliver results without feeling like they’re being burned at both ends?

That’s another reason to focus so much on the partnerships. Because, as Cindy (Marten) would probably tell you, when you build up entire communities around teachers and students like she did at Central Elementary, that actually takes off some of the burden that’s on the teacher’s shoulder. So the teacher no longer has to be the counselor, and the medical practitioner and the food service worker. They can actually focus on what they do in the classroom, and we can bring in some of these other partners to do some of these additional things that we know students need.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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