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Controversial reunion

LaShawnda Henderson graduated from college last spring, and this winter she’s right back where she started -- sleeping in her childhood home in Compton, eating her mother’s cooking every night and returning every day to her elementary school, three blocks away.

Henderson is a new teacher at her old school, Dickison Elementary, one of 13 Teach For America members in Compton, the first new contingent in the city since the district stopped hiring them five years ago. The 22-year-old abandoned her initial plans to become a pharmacist or a lawyer and decided her life’s ambition is to improve education in her hometown.

“I really wanted to go back to my community,” she said. “I’m making a difference in someone else’s life.”

Teach For America, a highly selective program that assigns recent college graduates for two years to low-income, underperforming schools across the country, had a long history in the Compton Unified School District. But after the 2003-04 school year, the district ended its relationship with the organizationreportedly because of declining enrollment.

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Teach For America has moved in and out of school districts based on teacher needs, but the controversy in Compton appears to be the first time in Southern California that the group has had trouble reentering a district.

TFA repeatedly tried to return, but some school district trustees and union leaders questioned the wisdom of investing in teachers who sign on only for a couple years and who often pursue other careers outside the classroom when their time is up. Tensions were exacerbated when a former TFA member wrote a scathing book about her experiences in Compton.

Underlying the debate in Compton is criticism that has been leveled against Teach For America in academic circles. Frustrations sometimes arise when idealistic but inexperienced teachers attempt to turn around schools run mostly by veteran educators. The TFA instructors are sometimes viewed as affluent outsiders who think their enthusiasm can solve societal ills that have been festering for decades. The program has been derisively called Teach For Awhile.

The Compton Board of Education eventually allowed the program to return on a 4-3 vote. At least one board member fears for its future after the three-year contract expires. Several board members are openly disdainful of the program.

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Board member Satra Zurita said she fears TFA is often a “pit stop” between college and graduate school and that the group’s five weeks of training before their classroom assignments are incomparable to the training traditional teachers receive. Her colleague, Micah Ali, agrees, saying he doesn’t think the district should be spending money to train teachers who aren’t going to stay. In addition to their salaries, the district paid $4,000 per teacher to offset TFA costs.

Supporters said teacher tenure is irrelevant, especially when the district has difficulty filling positions in fields such as math and science.

“This program has repeatedly proven itself by bringing innovative, young, enthusiastic individuals to the realm of education,” said board member Joel Estrada.

TFA leaders point to data showing that 90% of its members in recent years return to teach a second year, compared with 83% of new teachers in low-income communities. (Two of the 13 teachers placed in Compton this fall have dropped out.)

Henderson, who is black and was born in Compton, said she understands the concerns but hopes the district continues to allow TFA inside local schools.

“I know sometimes you don’t want to let other people in whom you don’t know,” she said as she watched children during recess. “But at the same time, any time someone is passionate about wanting to help the community, you should let them.”

Supt. Kaye Burnside supports the program and said Henderson is a role model for her young students.

“The message is you can be whoever, whatever it is you want to be,” Burnside said.

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Compton Unified has a history of academic and financial problems -- in 1993, the district was the first to be taken over by the state. Student test scores were among the lowest in California, and the district was $20 million in debt.

Local officials regained control in 2001. Academics have improved, but the 28,000-pupil district is struggling to meet math and English goals under federal No Child Left Behind requirements.

When Henderson began her freshman year at Compton High, she had nearly 900 classmates. By the time she gave the class’ salutatorian speech in 2004, hundreds were missing.

Henderson and her two older sisters flourished despite their district’s challenges, a success partly attributable to mother Lawanda Matthews and stepfather, Arthur Evans.

They placed a strong focus on academics and values.

Henderson wanted to be a cheerleader in high school, but her mother thought her time could be better spent. So Henderson joined the debate team and student council.

“Her education is more important to me than that; it would look better on transcripts,” Matthews said.

Her parents’ discipline is on view in Henderson’s second-grade classroom. Students are expected to sit in “scholar position” -- straight posture, feet flat on the ground, hands folded on their desks, eyes looking forward, lips zipped -- if they want to be picked to be the day’s classroom helper. Students who use the word “got” improperly -- “I got the answer!” -- have their name written on the board.

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The students adore their teacher, who barely looks old enough to drive and was the first in her family to attend a University of California campus. (She graduated from UC Santa Barbara.) Lining up before the final bell, several pleaded with Henderson to compete in an after-school trivia contest.

“You’re smart,” said Giselle Guevara-Lopez, 7. “You passed college.”

Parents say she inspires their children.

“They feel, we have a shot, we have an opportunity,” said Yesenia Hernandez, 28, whose son, Kevin, is in Henderson’s class.

Teach For America began in Compton in 1990, its first year of operation. Several of its teachers went on to become school leaders, such as Mikara Solomon-Davis, who became the principal of Bunche Elementary in 2000 at the age of 27.

When she began, the school ranked in the lowest 10% of schools statewide. By 2007, it was posting test scores that put its students’ achievements on par with schools in Beverly Hills and San Marino. She left the district to raise her child two years ago but hopes to return soon.

Some TFA alumni leave the field altogether, some work in education policy and about one-third remain in K-12 education.

Sandra Kinne, a 1999 Syracuse University graduate, was one of two teachers placed at Kennedy Elementary. From the start, the then-principal told them he didn’t want them at his school. Some long-term teachers were initially suspicious of their inexperience, while others grew cold when the new teachers tried new programs.

“For me, the experience in Compton, as much as I love the kids and the families, there was a [district] culture that accepted the status quo,” said Kinne, who taught there for three years, earned two masters’ degrees and returned to Compton for two more years. She is now teaching in New York.

The tension in the district was exacerbated by a 2005 book, “Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton,” by Sarah Sentilles. The book describes an affluent white woman’s experiences teaching in Compton and is unblinking in its assessment of the school district as a failure.

Board member Ali said he was disheartened by the book and that he believes Sentilles lacked an understanding of the community and its needs.

“The perspective was very damaging and hurtful to our . . . children,” he said. “I’m going to fight very, very stridently against Teach For America.”

In recent years, the group has stepped up its recruitment of minority and socio-economically disadvantaged students to join their teaching corps. Minorities currently make up 29% of first-year corps members nationwide and 42% in the Los Angeles area, among the largest centers for TFA placements in the nation.

Henderson has no plans to be a short-timer -- she plans to teach for five years or so, earn her master’s and become a principal at a Compton school.

When she landed the spot at her old elementary school, Henderson decided to live at home. Her bedroom looks markedly different than it did before she left for college. The bunk bed she shared with her sister is gone, and her old costume jewelry is stashed in a box on her dresser.

The room is dominated by crates of her students’ portfolios and curriculum guides. Above her pillow is a blue construction-paper card with a drawing of a heart from student Reyna Covarrubias.

“Ms. Henderson, you are the best teacher I ever had,” the 7-year-old wrote.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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