Candidate controversy: Opposition questions Teach for America affiliate’s donation

Katrina Callsen graduated from Yale and UVA law and her career has been in education and child advocacy, but her opponent is criticizing her teaching creds and one of her donors.
Submitted photo Katrina Callsen graduated from Yale and UVA law and her career has been in education and child advocacy, but her opponent is criticizing her teaching creds and one of her donors. Submitted photo


With election day less than a week away, some are questioning a school board contender’s candidacy because of her involvement in a certain nonprofit.

Katrina Callsen is running for the Rio District seat on the Albemarle County School Board. The stay-at-home mom and former Teach for America corps member faces Mary McIntyre, a former part-time literacy teacher at Agnor-Hurt Elementary.

Callsen, a Yale alumni who also graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 2014, joined Teach for America in 2009 and taught seventh grade math in Boston for two years with the nonprofit, which aims to “grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.”

The problem, says Walt Heinecke, an associate professor at UVA’s Curry School of Education, is that TFA offers limited training, so its candidates “don’t really get a full exposure for how to teach.” TFA graduates go through a five-week teaching course before being stationed in classrooms across America.

Heinecke adds that many TFA grads are short-timers in the field, and are assigned to low-income neighborhoods. “And I just don’t think it’s fair to kids living under those conditions to have those teachers with no real pedagogical training serving them,” he says.

WTJU general manager and activist Nathan Moore, the treasurer for the campaign of Callsen’s competitor, notes a recent donation to Callsen of $7,000 from Leadership for Educational Equity, a TFA-affiliated nonprofit that gives money to political candidates, but whose spokesperson says is not a political action committee. The Virginia Public Access Project also shows a $1,000 donation from Arthur Rock, a TFA principal donor from San Francisco, and a contribution of the same amount from Gary Debode, a New York City-area man active in the charter school movement.

“I’m not just complaining about how much she raised. …In a school board race like this, it smells foul to me when I see this kind of money from a special interest PAC like TFA,” says Moore. “Teach for America has a lovely mission, but because of how it operates, it somewhat disrespects the teaching mission.”

But according to Callsen, TFA in Massachusetts has one of the most rigorous licensure programs in the country. To become fully licensed, she studied at Boston University School of Education, passed the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure, completed two years of professional development and teacher training and submitted yearly reviews of teaching material and evidence of student progress. This was in addition to TFA’s five-week crash course and a bachelor’s degree from Yale.

And in 2012, UVA boasted about the number of its grads that were accepted into the competitive TFA program.

“My campaign has always been about serving children,” says Callsen. “I am qualified for School Board because I work hard, I care about children and my community, I am dedicated to being accessible and am willing to listen to everyone, and I have a proven track record of advocating on behalf of children.”

Aside from joining TFA, Callsen studied educational law and child advocacy at UVA Law and has volunteered with groups such as CASA—Court Appointed Special Advocates, Just Children and Kids Give Back. She says TFA has not offered funding or resources to her campaign, though public records show donations from the nonprofit’s PAC and top donors.

The candidate, who claims to be the only one with roots in the local community, says her decision to teach, go to law school and run for school board have all been prompted by her childhood.

“Growing up in a low-income household, I saw my parents struggle to make ends meet as I worked to achieve the future they envisioned for me,” Callsen says. “I learned that education is truly the pathway to success and, having spent my career in and around classrooms, I hope to bring that unique perspective to the board.”

Correction November 3: Leadership for Educational Equity is not a political action committee as the original headline and story indicated.

Correction November 3: Mary McIntyre is not currently a teacher at Agnor-Hurt Elementary.

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