|FEATURES Spring 2003|
Teach for America is making an impact on American public educationaddressing educational inequity in the most under-resourced schools. Washington University alumni are part of the program.
What am I going to do after I graduate?" is a question asked by nearly every college senior. Typical responses include finding gainful employment, attending graduate school, traveling abroad, or taking part in public service. For Washington University students who fall into the last category, several have become part of a growing movement to make a difference in public education in the United States. They have joined Teach for America (TFA).
Founded in 1990 by Princeton graduate Wendy Koppa result of her senior thesisTeach for America recruits bright, enthusiastic college graduates of all majors to teach for two years at some of the most underserved elementary and secondary schools in the country. Serving 18 regions (and growing), the program sends teachers, "corps members," to schools in low-income areas, both urban and rural. From New York to San Francisco, from Chicago to St. Louis to southern Louisiana, some 2,500-plus corps members work to raise expectations and to raise the performance of their students.
According to Eric Scroggins, A.B. '01, a key message emanating from Teach for America is that "given the opportunity, which means the resources and the structure, children in low-income communities can succeed. These children can do itand they deserve the opportunity!" Scroggins, a social thought and analysis major and a pre-med student, teaches eighth-grade Earth science at IS 125, a middle school in the South Bronx. He works hard to teach his students principles of igneous rock formationand to help them get into better high schools.
"In the high school where my students are assigned, only 26 percent of the kids graduate in four years," says Scroggins. "In my first year of teaching, I didn't realize this; I didn't know students had to apply to get into other public high schools. This year, I have been very involved in the high-school selection process; I think that is integral to my students' future."
In the IS 125 class of 2002, only seven students applied to Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Techthree top New York City public high schools. This past fall, Scroggins conducted a review program, and 156 of his 175 students took the entrance exam for these schools. They are waiting to hear if they have been admitted.
"If we have even 10 kids accepted into these special, intense schools, that is a 1,000 percent increase over the past 25 years," he says. "And it opens the door for future students."
On a Mission
The achievement gap between students of high- and middle-income communities and those of low-income communities is wide. According to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, "Nearly 70 percent of inner-city and rural fourth-graders cannot read at even a basic level. Imagine that: In the greatest, wealthiest nation the world has ever known, nearly 7 out of 10 fourth-graders in big cities and rural areas cannot read. It is our greatest failure as a nation. It is our failure as a people, and we must do something about it."
Mary Garton, A.B. '91, is working hard to do just that. Graduating with a degree in French language and literature, Garton joined Teach for America in 1991 and taught French in a rural school in southern Louisiana. Realizing the great need for teachers across all subjects, Garton became a full-time middle-school teacher in her second year. After her two-year commitment was over, she continued teaching for another 7 1/2 years, until Teach for America asked her to manage its Summer Training Institute.
"I was persuaded that by preparing new teachers I could impact a thousand classrooms and not just one," says Garton.
After managing the Summer Institute in Houston for two years, she is back in Louisiana as the executive director of Teach for America in the region. "I realized that my real commitment was to the students of the greater New Orleans Public Schools," says Garton. "I now work with 130 teachers and staff throughout the region."
Making an Impact
To maximize its impact, Teach for America has a two-fold mission. In phase one, determined, idealistic college graduates go into schools with the greatest needs to help some 215,000 students. The corps members have a directive: to elevate each student's performance by 1 1/2 years each academic year.
"There is an incredibly wide range of ability levels within one classroom," says Garton. "A lot of our teachers conclude: 'If I am going to make this happen, I will have to personalize instruction. I'll have to create extra learning opportunities for my students who are behind.'"
In the second phase, TFA alumni carry their teaching experiences with them to influence other segments of society. "We have physicians, bankers, lawyers, all working out in the community as advocates for education, but in different ways," says Garton. "While we embrace and encourage our folks who want to stay in education, we know it is going to take changemassive systemic changein all sectors to really make a difference for education."
Growing a Movement
Many young people are stirred by the call to serve. For the 2002-2003 academic year, some 14,000 persons applied for 1,700 positions. Of the 87 applicants from Washington University, 18 were accepted.
Laura Nalley, recruitment director for the Midwest region, visits the University often as one of the five principal schools she targets. "We've found that so many of those who apply are very well-suited for our selection model," says Nalley. "We are looking for really amazing people, and many amazing people apply, but we are also looking for the person who has the drive to do something about the inequities in education." [Washington University alumni have been a part of the program since its second year in 1991.]
Rob Wild, A.B. '93 (dual degrees in biology and Afro- and African-American studies), was a 1993 corps member and taught science at a middle school in the Bronx. Now the associate director for residential life at the University, he also is an alumni recruiter for Teach for America. Wild says, "I meet with a lot of students, and I tell them: 'Teach for America is the hardest thing I've ever done. It is hard teaching anywhere, but Teach for America is particularly hard because you are going into an area without a lot of resources, where the children face a lot of challenges that most of us do not face while growing up.'"
Scroggins adds: "All children have problems, but our children are facing the intersection of multiple problems, such as racism, poverty, and xenophobia. I feel they have more than most to overcome in order to be successful in school. A lot of them are English-language learners, their parents are immigrants, and 98 percent of them are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch."
Teach for America teachers get intensive training to work with these children. Directly after college graduation, corps members attend a five-week summer institute. The institute teaches the "how-to's" of managing a classroom and creating lesson plans. The instruction draws on top education research from across the country for the basis of its curriculum and on the practices of teachers who have been successful in low-income schools. Throughout their tenures, corps members also get support from TFA programming personnel, their school principal, mentor teacher, and often other corps members in their same school.
Working Hard for Kids
Teach for America corps members are filling a need in districts with teacher shortages.
Sharon Ganger, A.B. '02, teaches communication arts (literature and reading) at Bunche International Studies Middle School in North St. Louis. With a significant population of international students, where English is often a second- and sometimes third-language, Ganger has to individualize her instruction to help the students improve reading comprehension. She is acutely aware of the importance of bringing her students up to acceptable levels.
"As early as eighth grade, I am already noticing that some students are so far behind," says Ganger. "They need help getting to where they need to be in terms of what is acceptable for a person 13 years of age to know."
Ganger, a social thought and analysis major, hopes one day to earn a law degree, to effect change regarding legal aspects of education. "Originally, I knew I wanted to study law," she says, "but the more I hear about the political aspects of education, the more I want to deal with that process."
Scroggins, whose future plans also include law school and work in the nonprofit sector, says: "I work hard for my kids because I know what is possible. I know the disparity in resources in my school, yet I know given the opportunity, my students can succeed. That juxtaposition is what really motivates me."
And Garton continues to work for the best education for all children in her region. "I hadn't been back to Washington U. in a long time, and I came back over the winter break," she says. "As I was walking around campus, I kept thinking that I hope what I am doing in New Orleans is making opportunities like coming here a reality for more of our students."
Maybe one day, her students and hundreds more like them can ask, "What am I going to do after I graduate from college?"
"There is an incredibly wide range of ability levels within one classroom," says Mary Garton. "A lot of our teachers conclude: 'If I am going to make this happen, I will have to personalize instruction. ...'"