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Date: 2010-01-17

Georgetown Teaches for America

Monica Escobar (C’07) recalls the exact moment she decided to apply to Teach For America her senior year.

“I was walking through Copley Lawn, and these flags had been placed the length of the path,” she says. “There would be nine gray flags, and then a blue flag, and then it would repeat. There was a sign that said, ‘Only one in 10 low-income students graduate from college. This is called the achievement gap and you’re walking it right now – apply to Teach For America.’ ”

The display struck a chord with Escobar, who now teaches ninth-grade English at Anacostia Senior High in Washington, D.C.

“I grew up in a low-income, Central American neighborhood in the D.C. metropolitan area,” she says. “I knew I was the one in 10 and knew I had to give back to the community in order to feel good about myself.”

Shared Values

Georgetown alumni who join the organization share a common educational experience that stresses the value of service to others. That kind of experience has turned out to be a good fit for Teach For America, whose corps members teach in underserved urban and rural public schools for a minimum of two years.

A total of 323 Georgetown alumni have completed or are currently in the Teach For America program, according to a spokesperson at the Teach For America headquarters in New York City. This includes 225 who already have completed their two-year commitments to the program, as well as 98 who are in the midst of their Teach For America experience.

The program received about 35,000 applications in the 2008-2009 academic year, with 4,100 chosen for the 2009 corps. These students began teaching in the fall of the 2009-2010 academic year. A total of 53 of the 4,100 chosen for 2009 were from Georgetown.

No data is yet available for the 2010 corps, which is chosen from 2009-2010 academic year applicants.

Teach For America was the largest employer of the Georgetown Class of 2009, and the university was the third highest contributor of graduates to the 2009 corps among schools its size (under 10,000 students.) There were only six Hoyas for the first year of teacher program in 1990. The number rose into the double digits in the late 1990s, jumped in 2007 to 21, and more than doubled in 2008 with 45 Hoyas.

“So many of our students want to carry the ideals of the university out into the world,” says Daniel Porterfield, senior vice president for strategic development in Georgetown’s Office of Public Affairs, “and over the years Teach For America has shown itself to be a program that challenges and empowers them to do so. But make no mistake, teaching for two years in inner-city Chicago or rural Mississippi is a great responsibility and a profound challenge. The work requires extraordinary stamina and commitments comparable, in its way, to serving in the military or the Peace Corps.”

Rewarding Work

Hanseul Kang (F’04), for example, taught high school history and government, living on a Navajo reservation in rural Thoreau, N.M. She taught six classes a day, sometimes in a 95-degree classroom without enough desks, chairs or supplies. The size of the county in which she taught was about the size of Connecticut, but there was only one public library and it was too far away for her students to use.

“After my first few days of teaching, I remember being the most exhausted I had ever felt and just sort of collapsing in a chair and not being able to move for a little while,” Kang says. “Teaching is so draining because you have to be so ‘on’ the whole day. You’re on your feet, you’re moving around the classroom and all of your students’ eyes are on you. That took a while to get used to.”

But Kang also found her work extremely rewarding, teaching students from very underserved environments who had plenty of potential.

“I hit my stride at some point midway through my first year, when my classroom was very organized and I didn’t have any discipline problems. I just felt very comfortable with the structures I had. So there were lectures and activities, but I was running them myself,” Kang says. “The next step to really good teaching once you’ve gotten your classroom organized and under control is helping the class become more student-centered and learn for themselves.”

A breakthrough came when the students were using current events to study the Bill of Rights.

“I remember walking around the classroom and watching four students who were essentially debating major issues in the news that day,” she explains. “It was really powerful for me.”

Empowering Students

A student who made great strides after initially failing a class also moved her. When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson came to Kang’s government class and asked what the school needed, some of the students, being typical teenagers, started to make jokes.

But the student who had improved so much was the first to say something serious, about needing a public library nearby. The other students followed her lead and talked about the need for a full medical clinic, a dentist and other basic amenities the area lacked.

“That’s what Teach For America is here to do – to impel our students to learn to bring these issues to people who don’t always think about them,” says Kang, who is now at Harvard Law School.

Kang also notes the odd discrepancies that occur in federal funding for low-income schools. Her school had received state-of-the-art laptops, for example, but there weren’t enough desks to place them on.

Another Teach For America alumna, Sarah Audelo (F’06), taught ninth- and 10th-grade special education students in La Joya, Texas, for two years after her graduation.

“Our campus was a ‘most dangerous’ school in Texas because of the amount of drug busts,” she says. “Students would sell or use drugs on campus … some of my students lived with other family members or were in and out of the foster system because parents were in Mexico, in jail, or working ‘up North’ – they were migrants.”

She said many of the students joined gangs to fill the void left by missing family members, and one of her students got shot in a drive-by.

Yet Audelo also says her students “changed my life, and I learned so much more from them than I ever could have taught.”

An adviser for the National Honor Society as well as G-Force, a college preparation club in La Joya, she now lives in Washington, D.C., and works for a youth organization.

The students in La Joya lobbied their U.S. representative to support the DREAM Act. The acronym stands for Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors; the legislation would provide residency to certain illegal immigrant students who graduate from a U.S. high school.

Audelo’s students also visited Georgetown, staying with and shadowing current Hoyas.

“They absolutely loved Dr. Porterfield and Dr. [Anthony] Arend’s human rights class and a few even participated in the discussion,” she adds.

Six of her students graduated in 2009, with two receiving full scholarships – one to the University of San Diego and the other to the University of Texas at Austin.

Audelo is planning to apply to graduate school in fall 2010 to pursue degrees in public policy and social work.

“I love both policy change and working directly with young people,” she says. “I figure this is a way to try to get at both passions.”

Porterfield says that the university and Teach For America are ideal partners.

“In some sense, Georgetown and Teach For America share overlapping missions,” Porterfield says. “Teach For America’s commitment to rectifying the deep injustices of educational inequality resonates with students at Georgetown who have spent their college years in a culture that values informed, intelligent and impactful service.”

Drawing on Georgetown Experiences

Joseph Almeida (C’05) says when he arrived at Georgetown, he was struck by the university’s commitment to educating students to be men and women for others and “wanted to live out that credo.”

His desire to make a difference led him to Teach For America, and he quickly adapted an experience from his Georgetown days to his new surroundings teaching in the Inwood neighborhood in New York City.

“At Georgetown I was part of a hip-hop dance team, Groove Theory, for three years,” Almeida says. “In that environment, you learn how to work as a team, listen and help each other out, and I use that in my teaching. You always look for ways to reach a student that can awaken creativity and enthusiasm to propel them later in life.”

Almeida started an after-school hip-hop group at P.S./M.S. 278 in Manhattan.

“The classroom is a great place to teach life lessons, but there’s only so much time in the day.” So he incorporated hip-hop into his math lessons.

“For some students, if you do creative things, it’s not seen as academic work, but they’re still working hard and having fun doing it,” explains Almeida, who now teaches at KIPP Infinity Charter School in New York City. “I shared my passion for hip-hop, and it encourages them to find something they enjoy and get good at it.”

The result was a significant increase in student achievement scores. That initiative was one reason Almeida earned the 2007 Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teaching Award, Teach For America’s national award for its teacher of the year.

Steve de Man (C’04) also brought one of his Georgetown experiences to his students in Roma, Texas, by sharing his passion for Georgetown basketball with the team he coached.

But he thought a greater impact would be made if he brought his students to Georgetown, so he raised funds for a visit that has now become a fairly regular occurrence for students in the small community on the Mexican border.

“I really wanted to expose my students to what is possible,” he says. “Many of them had never traveled outside of their community, let alone to a college campus.”

The students were able to see the Washington sights they had studied in class, and they had the opportunity to meet with Georgetown students and faculty to gain a perspective on life in college.

While he considered pursuing a teaching career, de Man chose instead to work for Teach For America as a recruitment director in the D.C. area, realizing he could have a big impact by recruiting more teachers. He is now a director of alumni affairs for Teach For America.

“I meet with program alumni and we discuss ways to keep them connected to Teach For America, to great opportunities, and to each other – all to support their efforts related to educational equality,” he says.

Sophia E. Pappas (C’03) also worked for Teach For America, and recently wrote a book, published by Gryphon House, from a blog she kept about her experience.

“Good Morning Children: My First Years in Early Childhood Education” chronicles her time teaching pre-kindergarten in an inner-city school in Newark, N.J.

Now a graduate student in public policy at Harvard, Pappas says she knew from studying political systems and leaders during her undergraduate days and from being an intern on Capitol Hill that she wanted to help remedy society’s inequalities. Education seemed a good place to start.

“My time as a Teach For America corps member taught me that if we want to shape academic opportunities that will close the achievement gap, we must have firsthand insight into the experiences of children at the losing end of those disparities,” she says in the book’s preface. “As a pre-K teacher in an inner-city school, I was not only on the front lines – I was a leader on the first line of defense against educational inequity.”

Georgetown graduates join the organization from all walks of life. Daniel Feehan (F’05) is a former Army Ranger who served two tours of duty in Iraq and is postponing graduate school for a few years to work for Teach For America in Chicago.

“There’s nothing more demanding and thereby rewarding than to serve others,” Feehan said upon returning to campus to deliver the Senior Convocation address to the class of 2009. “Knowing that, I’m looking for my next chance at finding passion.

“I decided I don’t know enough about life,” he explained of his decision to join Teach For America, “especially about the many ways that life is lived in struggle. I need to know it, though. I need to find lasting human empathy and I need to keep serving as long as I feel its call. In the mission of Teach For America I hope to find a life of engagement and meaning.”

Joanna Belcher (C’03) taught fourth grade at O.S. Hubbard Elementary School in Alum Rock, a school district in East San Jose, Calif., during her time with Teach For America.

Her interest in teaching started at Georgetown, when she taught at an elementary school in southeast Washington during her first year. That led to her having the same group of children from second to fifth grade as part of the Heads Up/AmeriCorps program during her four years at the university. Her commitment didn’t waver after final exams.

“During the summers I lived in the neighborhood where my kids lived, which gave me the opportunity to get to know my students’ families,” she says. “… I still think of my students. My frustration and the demeaning and inequitable education they received at a school that stood within view of the Capitol building propelled me to join Teach For America and remains my motive.”

Belcher notes how her professors, including Porterfield, supported her throughout her Georgetown career.

“Dr. Porterfield supported me in writing my justice and peace studies thesis on the school where I worked and welcomed my students to campus on many occasions,” she explains. “Professor [Heidi] Elmendorf allowed me to design and [be a teaching assistant for] a science course where Georgetown undergraduates taught science to D.C. public school students.

She adds that Georgetown’s Ray Kemp, S.J., had worked in the area for years.

“Both he and Dr. Porterfield provided a classroom environment that encouraged the intersection of my work with students and the theories and texts we were studying in class.”

After she fulfilled her two-year stint with Teach For America, she taught fourth grade at Ralph J. Bunche Elementary School in Carson, Calif.

She later earned her master’s degree in school leadership and principal licensure from Harvard. During her time at Harvard, she worked as a principal intern in Massachusetts to gain administrative experience as part of her education. Upon graduation from Harvard, she was offered a one-year training Fisher Fellowship with KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program).

In August 2009, she opened KIPP’s first elementary school in Newark –SPARK Academy – as founding principal.

“What TFA does well is unite energetic and hardworking people around this idea that I know to be true – that our students are capable of the highest levels of achievement, and the onus is on the teacher to be accountable for that achievement regardless of the academic level on which students enter a classroom,” Belcher says.

She says 100 percent of her students at both schools in California qualified for free/reduced lunch and were behind in several academic areas.

During her second year at Hubbard, she and a colleague rewrote the math curriculum with their principal’s permission and doubled their students’ math scores on the state test.

Long-Term Commitments

One of Teach for America’s earliest participants was Kaya Henderson (F’92, G’07), now a deputy chancellor for the Washington, D.C., public school system. Henderson says that even after all these years, she still draws on what she learned from that experience.

“I learned three major lessons: When you hold students to high expectations, they will rise to the occasion, period.” she says. “Even the ones that people say can’t or won’t.”

She also learned that having a sense of possibility is more important than who or what you know, and, she concludes, “Good teachers can radically change the life outcomes of the students they serve.”

The Georgetown graduate says the strength of the Teach For America network is such that she interacts with many of its alumni regularly, including her boss, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Henderson notes, “My entire career has been shaped by my affiliation with Teach For America, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

The ranks of Georgetown alumni who have served in Teach For America have swelled considerably since Henderson’s time there, and they continue to grow.

“As former teachers recruit new students, word gets out in the community here on campus that, though the experience is challenging, it is also deeply rewarding,” Porterfield says. “Teach For America is becoming a go-to employer because past and current members express not only high job satisfaction but evidence of real, memorable change.”

Sticking With It

Though Teach For America requires only a two-year commitment, many of those who join stay in education once their term of service ends.

Two-thirds of alumni are still teachers like Escobar, principals like Belcher is and Almeida hopes to be, administrators like Henderson or otherwise involved in education according to Teach For America.

For her part, though her stint with the program ended in 2009, Escobar continues teaching, and she already recognizes how the last two years have changed her.

“Teaching has given me an infinite amount of patience and taught me to be incredibly analytical,” she says. “With other jobs and internships, I didn’t see the fruits of my labor daily like I do here. Nothing compares to it.”

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