Higher Learning

College seniors look to make the grade
while teaching at low-income public schools
Thursday, October 2, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:41 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Heather Hogan watched patiently as Rodolfo, a sixth-grader in Los Angeles, filled out her classroom evaluation. Even though the summertime class had ended, Rodolfo was diligently writing answers to the 20 questions. When he finished, he walked up to Hogan and shyly handed in his survey.

“Ms. Hogan, I didn’t know what to write for number 12 about how to improve our school,” he said. “I just wrote about picking up trash.

“But,” he added, “if I had more time I think, I would write that our school would be a lot better if we had more teachers like you.”

Rodolfo’s comments made Hogan’s commitment to teaching worthwhile. Hogan graduated from MU in May, along with 11 other students recruited by the Teach for America program this year.

Over the past two years, the nonprofit organization, which places college graduates in the public schools of poor communities, has jumped in popularity nationally and at MU. The Columbia campus is being targeted for recruitment, in part, because of leadership skills evident in the students, organizers say.

“The national acceptance rate historically for Teach For America is about 14 percent, but we know because of the quality of students at Missouri, we can do better than the national average,” said Erica Burroughs, Teach for America recruitment director responsible for MU. “There is tremendous potential at Mizzou and we want to tap into that.”

Since recruiting began on campus in 2001, the number of MU graduates joining the two-year program has grown from one to 12. The number of applicants increased from 14 in 2001 to 54 this year. Next year’s goal is to have 100 MU students apply and to choose 20 to join the corps, Burroughs said.

On Tuesday, the program’s founder stopped in Columbia on the cusp of recruiting season.

“I knew college students want to do this,” said Wendy Kopp, Teach for America president, recalling the first days of the 13-year-old program during a talk in MU’s Fisher Auditorium. “It’s impossible to come out of this experience seeing the world the same way.”

Michaella Hammond, an MU journalism and anthropology graduate from suburban Kansas City, taught humanities, language arts and social studies for the program in a school in Henderson, N.C. She said public university graduates understand better what public schools are all about.

“Mizzou graduates specifically lend a solid educational background with down-to-earth persistence,” Hammond said. “Not to be a regional snob, but I think the Midwest has some of the brightest, creative and real people in the nation.”

Where they’re needed most

Former Missouri Students Association President Mykael Wright told his students at Sabis International School in Phoenix from day one that if they said “shut up” in the classroom they would get detention. They tried to talk him out of it.

“But Mr. Wright, I can’t help it,” one of the children complained. “We hear it all the time. I can’t control myself.”

Wright, who graduated in May and teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English and social studies, remained firm.

“Well, after cleaning up the cafeteria enough, they can control themselves magically,” he said.

Wright said some students think he is mean for giving them detention. He said he is trying to manage his class and help his students get better and make the most of their education. When his class did not receive enough books, Wright made copies for everyone, chapter by chapter.

“I tell them it’s better than the books the other class has because they can write on what I give them,” he said.

Teach for America places its graduates in 20 urban and rural areas across the country. These are the areas where they are needed the most — poor urban and rural school districts. Children in poor communities have minimal access to health care, lack proper housing and nutrition and have limited preschool opportunities, said Kopp.

More than 1,700 graduates started teaching this fall, increasing the total number of active members nationwide to more than 3,200.

The program boomed in 2002 when nationwide applicant numbers for the program tripled.

Kopp came up with the idea for the program in 1989 during her senior year at Princeton University. She developed the idea of helping children in poor communities in her undergraduate thesis and secured a grant to get the program started.

When the Teach for America program started in 1990, 500 members were placed in six locations across the country.

Although Teach for America is generally well-regarded, a 2001 evaluation of the Houston program quoted critics who called it a Peace Corps-style rescue mission rather than a true profession.

Kopp said it is hard to produce the statistical data to show the changes Teach for America corps members made to the school and the community they are in. She said Teach for America has thousands of anecdotes describing the program’s success — children who were behind improved and got on grade level, won contests and were some of the first in their schools to apply for honors program in high school. Some of them are in Kopp’s book, “One Day, All Children...,” which is short for the founder’s dream — that one day, all children in the United States will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

Obligation to give back

Lisa Coleman, a 22-year-old political science major, has worked for the program for about two years. Coleman, who is from the Kansas City area, is one of the program’s campaign coordinators at MU. She plans to spend her next two years with Teach for America.

“I feel like I have an obligation to give back to the least of us,” she said.

Coleman met Donnell and Dante, two fourth-graders studying on the south side of Chicago, when she spent some time there working alongside Teach for America corps members.

Donnell was attending his 11th school, because his parents traveled around a lot. He was about to move again, and he was scared.

“Yes it’s scary sometimes to change, but one thing you can always take with you is your intelligence and what you’ve learned,” Coleman told the boy.

In a letter she received after returning to MU, he thanked her for being there and helping him.

“I want to be a good father, I want to pay my bills on time and just be a good person,” little Dante told Coleman.

She said she felt inspired by the two boys and their stories.

“It reinforced my belief that no matter where you’re born, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person because you don’t have a lot of money,” Coleman said. “You deserve a chance in life just like everyone else does.”

Hogan, who taught young Rodolfo at the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, said the program gave her the opportunity to affect the lives of children while they touched her life in return. “I am passionate about making a difference in the life of a child,” she said.

Teaching and getting paid

Teach for America corps members are paid beginning teacher salaries by the school district that hires them. Teachers in urban areas make anywhere from $25,000 to $41,000 while teachers in rural schools make between $20,000 and $31,000. The salary in rural areas is lower because living costs are not as high as those in major cities.

Before starting to teach, the accepted applicants go through a training process in one of the organization’s three institutes in New York, Houston or Los Angeles. To ensure that candidates from all social backgrounds apply, Teach for America awards grants and no-interest loans ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to help graduates make it to their first paychecks.

Teach for America was an AmeriCorps program until June, when it was cut. Now it operates independently. Kopp said AmeriCorps funding was responsible for 5 percent of the organization’s budget. Teach for America’s annual operating budget for 2003 was $29 million.

AmeriCorps’ contribution was used to refund student loans. Kopp said the organization is trying to find private funding that would allow all students to participate, regardless of the loans they have.

More than 60 percent of Teach for America alumni have stayed in education. Some 100 alumni are now school principals, while 200 have founded their own schools or a nonprofit organization. Teach for America data show four out of five alumni made career choices based on the desire to help people in poor communities improve their lives.

“I wanted to give back to the people who nurtured and encouraged me beyond my family: teachers,” Hammond said. “Honestly, as naive as this may sound, I wanted, and still want, to make a difference.”

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