January 4, 2016; Rapid City Journal

Teach for America (TFA) members are college-educated, usually without a background in teaching, and spend two years serving students in low-income communities. As NPQ has reported, results of efforts to measure TFA’s success have been mixed at best. TFA has been criticized for its inadequate preparation of its members to work as teachers. Critics allege that low-income students are being shortchanged and that in some school districts using TFA members as teachers, qualified classroom teachers are losing job opportunities.

In South Dakota, TFA operates exclusively in the state’s Native American reservation communities. Not only are the reservations among the most impoverished areas in the United States, but geographic remoteness, racial/cultural competency, and the sovereign status of reservations’ tribal governance present daunting challenges, including the challenges of educating Native American youth. Teach for America-South Dakota (TFA-SD) has started a program to encourage college students from the state’s reservations to return to their communities after graduation as TFA members.

The TFA-SD initiative addresses several issues, some expressed and some not. Targeting recruitment of Native Americans to teach provides an educational and economic opportunity for those potential TFA members (in fact, TFA does no other member recruitment in South Dakota). Native TFA members would provide positive role models to Native students in their own classrooms. Less apparent is that recruiting Native Americans would help TFA-SD address resistance from some tribal leaders, who see TFA’s large national budget and reserves and wonder why their impoverished school districts are required to pay TFA $6,000 per year per member teaching in their schools. The initiative might also help TFA-SD secure long-desired financial support from South Dakota’s legislature—efforts that have been opposed openly by some legislators representing tribal districts.

Supporters of TFA and its mission might see TFA-SD’s outreach to Native American college students as an extension and fulfillment of its charitable mission, while opponents cite recent efforts by nonprofit allies of TFA to polish its reputation and be more assertive in responding to TFA critics.—Michael Wyland