Class of the classroom

Sunday, November 4, 2007 | 4:54 p.m. CST; updated 9:42 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — They’re hard to miss.

Doors, walls, hallways and bulletin boards: No surface on campus, it seems, is free from posted pleas to Teach for America, the national program that places high-achieving college graduates in some of the nation’s most underprivileged schools for two years.

Teach for America members come from a variety of backgrounds and interests, but they share one common trait: they believe educational inequity can be fixed, and they want to do something about it.

The program is in the midst of an ambitious growth plan that aspires to place 7,500 teachers in more than 30 regions by 2010. TFA has announced partnerships with the Indianapolis and Kansas City school districts with plans to send about 50 corps members to each city starting next fall.

The goal seems well within reach: Last year’s pool of 18,000 applicants yielded a record-size corps of more than 5,000 members.

Ron Gubitz, who spent four years teaching English at Vashon High School in St. Louis and now works for the organization, said 123 MU students applied for Teach for America in 2006. Moreover, MU was among U.S. colleges that boasted the most corps members, joining a list that includes six of the eight Ivy League universities. Since the 2003-04 school year, corps members from MU have doubled to 24.

Tom Smith, a 2002 MU graduate, joined Teach for America out of a desire to make a difference coupled with a lack of certainty about what to do after college. Smith applied to Teach for America, and a few months later, began teaching elementary school students in the rural town of West Helena, Ark.

“You’re young and you want to just go out into the world and uplift people,” he said. “At the end of the two years, I felt as if I were the one that was uplifted.”

Prospects weren’t always so bright for Teach for America. In it’s fledgling years, financial hardships caused the organization to lay off staff and even consider shutting down, according to a November 2006 report in Fortune Magazine. Don Fisher, founder of the Gap clothing company, however, agreed to donate $8.3 million to the organization in 2000, contingent on that amount being matched by other donors. Teach for America ultimately raised $25 million over a four-month period. Much of the money was used to increase recruiting efforts.

The organization currently operates on a budget of more than $100 million. In 2006, Teach for America members had an average grade point average of 3.5 and an SAT score of 1307. Yet the program still has its detractors.

One vocal critic has been Linda Darling Hammond, professor at Stanford University’s School of Education, who released a study in 2005 that concluded that students taught by non-certified TFA teachers didn’t perform as well as those taught by certified teachers who weren’t a part of the corps.

Other studies, however, reached a different conclusion. A 2004 study by the Mathematica Policy Research compared the performance of students of TFA teachers with other teachers in the same schools. Reading scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills were the same, and math scores were higher for those taught by corps members.

Teach for America members — only 2 percent were education majors in college in 2006 — take part in a rigorous five-week training institute before entering the classroom.

“I learned how to sleep four hours a night and teach the next day,” said Megan Block, a 2007 MU graduate who said she writes between eight and 10 lesson plans a night.

Block, who is working toward a master’s degree in urban education through a TFA and the University of Pennsylvania, recently began teaching as a reading specialist for third through fifth graders in Philadelphia.

“The kids I teach are at least two years behind in reading,” she said. “Just three miles down the road from where I teach are some of the best schools in the country. It’s not acceptable.”

Patrick Vassel, a Teach for America communications associate, said the program’s summer institute has evolved over the years. Teachers who have succeeded in the classroom often return to spend time with incoming members, and the program provides ongoing support to teachers once they are in the classroom.

“Each teacher has a program director they check in with,” Vassel said. “If they’re struggling with something, corps members know that they have that resource for whatever they might need.”

After summer training, teachers enroll in an alternative-certification program, which usually requires them to pass tests specific to the subject they will teach. In Missouri, Teach for America members take part in the state’s educator preparatory program, which leads to certification after two years, said Rusty Rosenkoetter, coordinator of educator certification at the Department of Education and Secondary Education.

According to Vassel, more than 60 percent of TFA members stay in education beyond their two years with the program. One Teach for America alumna, Michelle Rhee, is superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington, D.C.

Smith, now a second year law student at Washington University in St. Louis, said he continues to be motivated by his Teach for America experience.

“I miss teaching and respect that people are making an impact on a daily basis in the classroom,” he said. “I see law and government as a whole other way to make broad-based decisions that can affect those teachers, principals and students.”

Since Teach for America is a popular option for graduates, MU has launched a counseling program built on similar principles. In March, MU received a $1 million grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to create a college-advising program. Eleven recent graduates will be placed in three Missouri community colleges and eight high schools to serve as guidance counselors. The program will begin interviewing possible candidates early next semester.

Jeffrey Williams, director of access and urban outreach at MU, said the program hopes to tap into the “same sort of impulse” to change the world for the better that is felt by Teach for America members.

“Across the state, there is an average student to counselor ratio of 400 to 1, and counselors are often overwhelmed and don’t have the time for the mundane details of the college application process,” said Williams. “We hope this can help students overcome the information barrier and makes it more likely that students go on to pursue higher education.”

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