Walter Stern ’01 is graduating in May, but he is already thinking about his first day of school. Like the new kid on the block, Stern imagines standing out on his first day, when he will begin teaching English to middle or high schoolers in the Mississippi Delta.

“I grew up in New Orleans, so I’m from the South, but the Delta is different,” said Stern, who is former editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine. “I know I’ll stand out like a sore thumb, and they’ll be able to tell right away I’ve spent time in the North. The first day of school is August 6, and it’ll probably be about 95 degrees out, so I’ll probably be as unhappy to be starting school as they will. Maybe that will help win them over to my side.”

Stern’s sweltering first day back in school will mark the beginning of a two-year odyssey into the world of teaching, the rural South and educational inequality as one of nearly 1,000 incoming Teach for America corps members, including possibly more than a dozen Yalies. But a decade after its start, the program, which continues to bring uncertified but enthusiastic young teachers to classrooms, remains controversial among educators who say it may cause more problems than it solves.

Started from a senior project by Princeton student Wendy Kopp in 1989, the program aims to alleviate a growing national teacher shortage by sending recent college graduates to 17 rural and urban sites across the country. The lengthy selection process, which includes applications and interviews, as well as sample teaching, narrows down the nearly 4,000 applicants to the program and places corps members in school districts often faced with a lack of certified teachers. Each year about 20 Yale students are selected.

Advocates of the program say it represents a positive way to capitalize on the idealism of college students looking to make a difference in education, and point to the growing number of applicants for Teach for America as a sign of its success.

But critics question the idea of placing more untrained teachers in classrooms, particularly those in some of the poorest urban and rural schools. By placing new teachers in the most difficult settings, critics say Teach for America creates a generation of disillusioned cynics from the once most hopeful students.

“The fact that they teach in schools that are probably not functioning as well as they should gives them a kind of particular view of schools, and their experience shapes how they think about education,” said Claryce Evans, a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “I think it makes them more skeptical of teachers. They see kind of the worst of what teaching can be.”

Not enough training?

Some critics say the program unfairly sends undertrained teachers to already disadvantaged schools. Though Teach for America teachers receive a rigorous five-week training program the summer before they begin teaching, few are certified or have majored in education.

“The basic criticism is this: Would I want my child to be taught by someone who hasn’t been prepared fully?” said Jonathon Gillette, the director of Yale’s Teacher Preparation program. “And if the answer is no, why would I want someone else’s child, particularly one with more stresses in the learning environment, to be taught by someone who is less prepared?”

“I think it’s good to put the spotlight of a lot of very smart idealistic people on problems of urban education,” Gillette said. “But the experience I’ve seen is that in certain settings where the school provides substantial support it can be a positive experience, and in schools where there isn’t, it is not a good experience for either students or Teach For America candidates.”

For Alice Ricks ’01, who will teach elementary school in Atlanta this fall after TFA’s summer training program, the amount of preparation she will have before her first day in the classroom is worrisome.

“I think it will be really, really scary,” Ricks said. “I’m expecting it to be really, really difficult, since I haven’t been a Teacher Prep major at all. But I also expect it to be fulfilling and inspiring. I’m very skeptical about the training.”

Ricks began to consider teaching as a career last summer, when she worked at a Head Start program in New Haven while studying for the Medical College Admissions Test. She said her experience made her realize she would rather teach than go to medical school. While she still has her anxieties about teaching, Ricks hopes they will be eased once she gets into the classroom.

Though the training program is not as rigorous as teacher certification, corps alums say no amount of preparation can substitute for actual classroom experience.

“The preparation is for what is bound to be an intense experience,” said Michael Johnston ’99 LAW ’03, who taught in the Mississippi Delta before returning to Yale for law school last fall. “There has been criticism that there is not enough preparation, but I don’t think you could get enough prep if you worked for four years without going in front of a classroom.”

Not just for teachers

Every Thursday after work, Luis Quan ’00 meets some college friends at the Yale Club in Manhattan. His friends arrive after a long day at Wall Street; Quan arrives from the South Bronx, where he teaches third grade bilingual education.

“My friends try to show off who has the newest Palm Pilot,” Quan said. “I show off with something more profound. These are my kids’ works, how much progress I’ve had with this kid, how much stress I experience but how much that pays off. I don’t feel empty after I do something, and they respect me for that a lot.”

Quan, whose only teaching experience prior to Teach for America included tutoring in local high schools, said he felt the combination of Teach for America’s summer training program and ongoing support system made his experience both challenging and fulfilling.

Though Quan chose the program for the opportunity to directly help a community, he now says he plans to go into a career in education through either policy, law or the classroom itself.

Like Quan, about half of Teach for America alums continue working in education after their two years in the program.

Though not certain he wants to go into education as a career, Stern, who has spent recent summers teaching summer school, said for the programs’ faults, it still fulfills an important mission.

“It’s definitely not an ideal program,” Stern said. “But I think there is still something that has to be done, and even if the success rate as far as Teach For America teachers staying in education is not that great or a whole lot have difficult times, they are still getting more people going into education than would be otherwise.”