During spring of my junior year (in 2010) while matriculating at GSU for a B.S. in Psychology, I responded to a sociology department advertisement for 'Jumpstart' (An Americorps, preschool literacy program for underprivileged socioeconomic community groups). This included an Americorps grant award of $1000 if I completed 1000 hours of community service (reading to community preschool children).
The Jumpstart supervisor (Eshe Collins), was impressed by my enthusiastic engagement with community children and suggested that I pursue a teaching career with Teach For America (TFA). She, and other GSU faculty members, touted TFA enthusiastically and encouraged me to apply, with a sense of urgency, as there were literally thousands of applicants from around the country. In fact, Collins wrote a recommendation for me.
I applied for TFA around October of 2010 by submitting an essay and a personal statement. This personal statement (encouraged and revised by my GSU English professor, Robert Burns), included information: on where I wanted to teach-- I was asked to rank TFA facilities around the country – I preferred Atlanta and East Coast facilities to be close to my grandmother who was about to undergo radical heart surgery; my preference for special education students and the student age group; my rationale for my desire to focus on the lower socioeconomic Black and Latino demographics.
Later that year around December in 2010, I interviewed for a TFA corps member position; with TFA staff at their Atlanta corporate office. This all day interview (conducted with 10-15 other TFA applicants) required me to present a designed lesson. This concluded with a private interview, where I was asked to reply to several scenario questions. Several of these questions touched me deeply and my emotional response went over very well with the interviewers.
I was showered with compliments and praise for making it through the hundreds and hundreds of nationwide applicants. There was a celebrity type atmosphere where I was made to feel that I was being rewarded for this achievement. I feel now, however, that I was surrounded by predators; pushing me into pursuing education programs that enabled them to milk student loan programs at my expense.
In January 2011, I was offered a Teach For America Special Education teacher position in the Los Angeles area school system; to begin upon my graduation from Georgia State University with a BS in Psychology in May 2011. Upon receipt of this offer, I was pushed to confirm my acceptance with a two week window. This was actually a contract for a 2 year commitment to work for TFA-Los Angeles (and affiliates) as a Special Education teacher.
Included in this package were Americorps grants. It was explained to me that these Americorps grants were to be awarded for each year of service that I completed with TFA-LA. It turns out that these grants were not actually to be awarded to me. Instead, these Americorps grants were to be given to the CA university that TFA-LA designated for me. This was to be concurrent with my enrollment in a Masters program for Special Education with a credential in Mild/Moderate Disability K-12 in a CA university. I was not inclined to accept this offer because I had indicated a preference for location in TFA-Atlanta, to be near my advanced age grandmother (suffering from congestive heart failure).
During this time, I received calls from TFA graduates & alumni extolling the benefits of joining TFA. I did accept and was flown to Los Angeles during spring break of my senior year in early March to take the CA teaching exams (the CBEST and the CSET). The Testing was at my own expense; including an extra test fee because TFA mistakenly registered me several times for the same test. I wasn't happy about the extra test fee.
I passed both tests and Teach For America-Los Angeles staff informed me that I was now to become a TFA-Los Angeles cohort member (a program designation during our two year commitment) and was expected to relocate for TFA-provided-training in Los Angeles and find housing on my own with a $6,000 TFA provided personal loan. I was told to pay back this loan by the end of my 2 year commitment. Note that the final payment for this private loan was made June 2012. This was not a student loan.
I drove to Los Angeles and paid for personal lodging until I was given lodging in a Loyola Marymount University dormitory provided by TFA-Los Angeles; the site of their training programs. Training was done during the summer while staying at the LMU campus. The 1st day of training required trainees to be split into their teaching specialty (mine was Special Education- SPED) and given a lengthy presentation made by a Loyola SPED director and a couple of TFA Managers of Teacher Leadership Development (or MTLDs). After this presentation we all were given financial aid packages and the MTLDs directed the completion of each form. No questions were answered and we were told that entrance to the program was contingent upon the completion of these financial aid packages.
The training schedule consisted of 12 hour days for teacher prep workshops and seminars, lesson plan creation, along with in-class trials. In parallel, all the concurrent CA state licensing credential applications were completed in an accelerated time frame. Seminars and workshops were conducted every day of the week, including Saturdays and sometimes Sunday(s). The SPED group was physically separated from other trainees. Besides myself (an African American female born in Miami) this group included a middle aged Muslim woman, a trans man, and a disabled Asian man.
Participants of my group were repeatedly asked to perform as minorities (and identified as such by TFA staff). These performances were done before all the white students, faculty, and staff in the other groups. They put us before everybody: those that worked for TFA corporate headquarters, the LMU Faculty, and new TFA recruits. TFA staff called this "Institute". I called it demeaning objectification performances for others - all white people! Within our group our TFA MTLD directed that this was to be identified as 'white privilege'. These performances were mandatory.
There were 2 Managers of Teacher Leadership Development for Special Education. I was assigned to MTLD Stephanie Goodman. There was one additional MTLD who also led the remaining SPED teacher trainees. His name was Johnathan Stoneberg. With the MTLDs guiding the trainees, a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application form was completed after the 1st day presentation. This 1st day presentation was an intense sales presentation designed to close the deal, and was the only discussion of the program cost and payment options Teach For America-LA provided during the entire training period. It was filled with slides introducing a Loyola Marymount University scholarship of $20,000 plus a $5,000 Americorps grant. No mention of the cost of tuition at LMU was mentioned, but the financial aid benefit for me was emphasized and I was immediately encouraged by my supervisors to accept the offer.
At no time did any TFA-LA staff or LMU faculty mention a debt that I was agreeing to accepting these so-called scholarships and grants. We were told, that acceptance of the financial aid package, was required to enter LMU's Masters program for SPED. In short, completion and acceptance of LMU's Financial Aid Package was considered mandatory. And, continuous work completing the package was done while concurrently completing the numerous California teacher credential licensing application forms online.
I asked and was denied a choice for other CA universities. I was specifically told that it was not an option for any TFA-Los Angeles SPED cohort member. The program at private Loyola Marymount University was the most expensive of all TFA school partnerships. All other TFA affiliated CA universities were much less expensive, as they were all public CA universities. CA public universities had substantially lower tuition. I expressed my desire to take the least expensive route. All SPED cohort members expressed dissatisfaction; nevertheless, we were told that if we did not complete the LMU applications (virtually/online, and on-site, at that time), we were subject to removal from TFA-Los Angeles. Removal from the program required any cohort member to pay back money that was invested in each of us for relocation and training. This money, we were told, was in addition to the private/personal loan already agreed to.
After completing all the documentation foisted upon me, I found out from another member that subsequently quit the program prematurely, that the pay back amount was from TFA private funding (they said), and totaled over $10,000. I also discovered that non-SPED Teacher trainees were given a choice as to which CA school (public or private) they could attend. I can remember feeling uneasy and cheated at the time. I complained to my MTLD, that it was unsettling not to inform TFA cohort members of their financial obligations until after our relocation on-site in LA. It was further explained that the student financial aid loan package that we were to receive required each of us to become employed as a Teacher in the Los Angeles area school system.
Even then, I was not told the specific amount of the student aid loan package, for which I completed application forms. Instead, I was simply told by my assigned MTLD that all of our requirements and expenses were covered with the student aid loan package. I found this somewhat confusing at the time, as I was already in debt with the TFA personal private loans. I was told to start paying back these private loans immediately after the TFA-LA summer training program ended. I didn't understand the distinction between the private loans and the vague student financial package. None of the TFA MTLDs would resolve my confusion. I was convinced to continue with the TFA-LA program, with my questions unanswered.
Masters classes began immediately and remained concurrent with the two month Teach For America-Los Angeles training. In addition, TFA-Los Angeles staff provided templates for a standard resume, and we interviewed with Los Angeles school representatives for jobs in local schools affiliated with TFA-Los Angeles. Training concluded and I was hired at Animo Middle School #3 (a Green Dot Public School charter school organization) in August of 2011, weeks before the first day of school. A fellow TFA-Los Angeles classmate and I found an apartment to share and settled in to start our perspective jobs. Loyola Marymount Masters classes were conducted during night school after our full-time jobs.
My roommate and I shared a $3000 apartment in Echo Park, CA, while I commuted to my job at Animo Middle School located in Inglewood, CA. I was paid about $4,000 per month. I was usually getting home at 11pm after work and class and sitting in traffic. I worked nonstop daily, and was on my way to work by 6:30 am each morning. After Teach For America Los Angeles requirements on Saturdays, I spent the rest of my weekend lesson planning for work. There were six core subjects for special education that I taught. I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade history and science classes.
I arrived at Animo Middle School #3 on the first day of class; with local news reporters and protesting families outside along the parking lot and school entrance. I was assigned to a school in a community of Blacks and Latinos near Los Angeles Normandie Ave and 120th St neighborhood. This first day of work, I learned that Teach For America faculty and Green dot employees were hired to replace all the previous years' LAUSD staff. The community was incensed. As a result, the environment we were assigned was intense, to say the least; this is something TFA cohorts were not equipped or trained for by TFA-Los Angeles.
Throughout my tenure at this school, the atmosphere and neighborhood were terrifying. One of my 8th grade students was shot on his way home from school; he was hospitalized and survived. My roommate quit her Teach For America-Los Angeles job halfway through the school year, after one of her students was killed from gang violence. She told me that she felt unprepared for the emotional toll her job was taking and that it was affecting her mental health. This teaching experience along with keeping up with our Masters courses took a tremendous toll. My roommate decided that she could not handle this and opted out of the TFA-Los Angeles program. That is when we both discovered TFA-Los Angeles penalties for not staying the course. TFA-Los Angeles demanded repayment of $10,000. She & we were told that this was the minimum outlay TFA-Los Angeles provided for our training. She took on a job in the TFA-Los Angeles office and moved out, replacing her tenancy with someone she located on Craigslist. The rent imbalance added to the negatives, which were becoming overwhelming for me as well. I, too, began to doubt the wisdom of my choice to sign on the TFA-Los Angeles program.
All my Special Education students were black. Most, if not all, of these students were being warehoused with little or no attention being given to their actual education. Being black myself, this was not acceptable. So I beefed up the curriculum and made it interesting for each of my students. It was very successful. With the students. With the school administrators; not so much. In fact, this became the impetus for a campaign to oust me from the program. I didn't ignore the standardized curriculum; I used it and surrounded it with material relevant to African-Americans. The students, who previously had habitual truancy rates, ended the school year with perfect attendance. The school principal took my additions to the curriculum as opportunities to advocate for my removal from the program. It was very stressful, but the children came first; and they were happy to learn for a change. Oddly enough, the school principal thought that this connection with the students went against the Teach For America culture. I felt at all times that I was being punished for putting the children's education first. It was not encouraging.
The final straw for me occurred when I found out my grandmother (still residing in the Atlanta, GA area), was scheduled to have heart surgery in the summer of 2012. But I was wary of Teach For America-Los Angeles' financial penalties. So, I decided to take a leave of absence from the TFA-Los Angeles and Loyola Marymount masters program, and return to Atlanta to provide assisted living for my grandmother during her heart surgery recovery. I wanted to return to Atlanta to make sure she recovered, but did not want to be charged the fee for leaving Teach for America early. I communicated my concern to my Manager of Teacher Leadership Development (MTLD) Stephanie Goodman who helped me draft an emergency release waiver. I was granted an emergency release in June 2012 after my Los Angeles area middle school students' summer graduation. The emergency release extended for two years. After which I would be given the opportunity to return to the TFA-Los Angeles program or apply to the TFA Atlanta program in 2014.
In 2014, I found work at an Atlanta area high school teaching Special Education classes in preparation for my transfer to Teach For America-Atlanta. This was after my leave expired. My intent was to control or find an acceptable teaching environment while I continued my SPED Masters' courses, in an Atlanta area university. I applied to transfer from the TFA-Los Angeles program to the TFA-Atlanta program. My TFA LA Supervisor Stephanie Goodman initiated an Atlanta TFA transfer. When I began the enrollment process for the Georgia State University Masters program for Special Education with a credential in Mild/Moderate Disability K-12, TFA-Atlanta staff decided that I would have to undergo TFA training again and none of my completed Loyola Marymount Masters program credits would be transferred. To my surprise, I was asked to sign up for training (and more student financial aid loans) all over again. TFA-Atlanta staff informed me that I was expected to pay for the TFA-Atlanta Institute training program and then serve an additional 2 years of teaching service while I pursued my Masters at GSU. In short, my full year in TFA-Los Angeles' program would not count towards TFA-Atlanta's program. I even discovered then, that the provisional CA teaching credential, which I had also paid for, was no good in GA. I did not continue with TFA-Atlanta, nor did I return to TFA-Los Angeles. What's more, I did not finish the Teach For America program in 2013 (I stopped in 2012). So the student loan funding I used for TFA & Loyola Marymount provided me absolutely nothing and was a waste.
In 2015, newly married, my family moved to Los Angeles where I began work as a Special Education instructional aide. Since I had excellent grades from my course work in the 2011-2012 Teach For America Loyola Marymount University SPED Masters program, I decided to finish the Masters program. This is when I discovered that not even the courses I had taken were relevant to LMU's current SPED Masters program. I was told that the TFA/LMU SPED Masters program had been discontinued. So all my hard work and well-earned grades were for naught.
In the fall of 2017, I was notified by mail from the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) agency that my student loans (totaling over $90,000) had been purchased from Sallie Mae. This was the first notice I received of the amount of student loan debt I incurred from my formal (undergraduate/Georgia State University and postgraduate/Loyola Marymount) education. This notice claimed I was delinquent in student loan repayment, indicating that I had failed to make payments for several years on a total of 17 student loans (15 from Georgia State University undergraduate and 2 from Teach For America/Loyola Marymount postgraduate). Added to the loan amounts was almost $30,000 in service fees. This letter recommended that I sign up for a payment plan ($5/month) that would remove the delinquent status as well as the service fees. I signed up for automatic student loan payments for $5 each month and after 6 months my loan amounts dropped to $67,000. Indicating that my income level qualified me, NCLC staff directed me to the student loan servicer - Navient. Navient staff instructed me to consolidate my loans to make payments more manageable. I was able to consolidate a number of my undergraduate loans; now, resulting in 4 (down from 15) undergraduate loans for GSU, plus the 2 postgraduate loans for TFA/Loyola Marymount. I was a special education instructional aide, in the Los Angeles area, at the time, with an low income that qualified me to register for the income driven repayment plan, where they stated I qualified for no payments for 12 months based on my income level. I was instructed to renew an Income-driven repayment plan (IDR) every year. I was not aware that interest payments would accumulate in the interim, so now in 2021, the student loan total for the 4 undergraduate student loans and the 2 postgraduate student loans totals over $84,000. My correspondence with Navient staff was the first indication I received of the postgraduate loans payed to TFA/Loyola Marymount. TFA-Los Angeles staff took great pains to obscure the amounts of student loans I was asked to apply for, through their program.
July 2021, I applied for student loan consolidation (for my undergraduate student loans) from a member based credit union (the CA Credit Union) that offers a student loan consolidation service, and was denied. According to CCU staff (Maria in the Loan Dept), the denial was based on the number and amount of delinquent and outstanding student loans that I was trying to consolidate. Ironically, I was told that my current NYC tutor annual salary (of $51,300) was insufficient to qualify me for consolidating student loans in excess of that. The student loans that I was attempting to consolidate, totaled $54,545. Further more, I was told that I had too many negative items on my credit report to qualify for a student consolidation loan. How bogus is that? The negative items in my credit report are only associated with the student loans that I was attempting to consolidate. This year, I applied for a department of education loan discharge on the basis of several of the irregularities mentioned here in my narrative. How bogus is that? I was denied because my loan is not in default and ironically, because I am making loan payments.
Teach For America took advantage of my economic ignorance. But they were not the exception. From undergraduate at Georgia State University, to postgraduate at TFA-Los Angeles/Loyola Marymount, I was enthusiastically encouraged by faculty and counseling staff, to apply for student loans to cover expenses being charged to me for education that was not preparing me to make a salary that would enable me to one day pay the student loans off. Specifically though, my experience with TFA continues to be traumatic; as I am struggling to pay off this outstanding debt. Ironically, the educational credits I earned while at TFA-Los Angeles/Loyola Marymount University, cannot be utilized anywhere. The only evidence of my educational experience with TFA is my crushing debt.
Thank you for your time.
See me in my youtube video here: https://youtu.be/z_ps66UTpEE