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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

Class Conscious
(continued)

 
     

“Then I did a summer internship at a public school in Los Angeles, and I saw how these kids were living, and I thought: ‘Oh, my God, all these things I’ve taken for granted—so many people don’t have them! Things like having a home, and being fed, and having good health care.’ And so I wrote my senior thesis on English language-learners in the public schools . . . and when I heard about the Teach for America program, it just seemed like the perfect fit.”

Like most of the other 4,400 recent college graduates who are now teaching with TFA, Kathy earns about $40,000 a year and lives in a small apartment located only a few blocks away from the public school where she teaches. Like many of them, she’s also studying for a master’s degree in education at night.

In her classroom, Ha works on writing, vocabulary and grammar. She also spends a lot of time working on the students’ socialization skills. Things like being able to share, and using their hands respectfully as well as controlling their anger.

She says the results are worth the struggle and points to recent test scores that show how most of her students achieved more than 150 percent of their learning goals in English fluency last year.

“I absolutely have faith in these kids, and in this program,” Ha says. “I get down at times, but so what? I know I’ll be back here the very next morning, trying as hard as I can, all over again.”

And what does she do when she isn’t working so hard at PS 278?

“I take an African dance class,” she says with a chuckle. “Lots of exercise—and it really clears your mind of problems. I also read the Dalai Lama a lot!”

Fighting the Good Fight in Las Vegas and LA
While Kathy Ha struggles to keep the lid on a classroom of third-graders in Harlem, 23-year-old Heather Howerton, ’05, is now in her second TFA-year at the Walter V. Long Elementary School in economically depressed East Las Vegas, Nevada.

“I teach first-graders,” says Howerton, a former human development major who was president of her Chi Omega sorority during her senior year, “and I think the really challenging thing is that when you first meet your students, they can’t even write their own names.

“But I was absolutely thrilled at the end of my first year, when their reading tests showed that they’d all gone up more than a year and half on their reading skills! For a teacher, that’s the best reward.”

Howerton has organized a week-long college fair to be held at her school in the spring of 2007. It will feature exhibits describing the rewards and challenges of higher education for the mostly low-income, Mexican-American children who attend her school. “In the past, I’ve heard teachers say their students weren’t ‘capable’ of certain things, and I absolutely do not agree with that,” she says. “I think it’s really important to expose these children to ideas and possibilities that they wouldn’t ordinarily experience.”

Her determination has not gone unnoticed. Last year, the Clark County Public School District of Nevada chose Howerton as the district’s “New Teacher of the Year”—out of more than 3,300 teachers who were eligible for the honor.

Meanwhile, in the economically battered South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, TFA member Marla Goins, ’04, recently completed her two-year obligation as a sixth-grade teacher at the mainly Latino John Adams Middle School. A double major in theater and history, Goins says she became interested in teaching as a profession while spending a UCSD year studying theater in England.

“I took a class called ‘Theater for Social Change’ at the University of Lancaster, and my assignment in that course was to work with the teachers at a local middle school in a low-income neighborhood,” says Goins. “When I saw how enthusiastic and determined they were, I began to think that teaching might be for me.

“Then, not long after I got back to UCSD, I ran across the Teach For America program, and I was hooked. I’ve spent the past two years teaching sixth-graders here, and now I’m back for a third year, while I work on a master’s in education at night. What I like most is the way TFA keeps urging all of us to strive for ‘big gains’ with our students.

“When you show these kids their progress over time, you’re showing them that anything is possible. When I first started teaching here, I was shocked to learn that many of our sixth-graders were reading at a second- or third-grade level. We’re now well ahead of the national average, when it comes to improving our reading scores each year.

“Results like that are hard to argue with,” Goins adds. “Teaching in South Central is hard, but it’s definitely the place I want to be.”

Teach For America: A National Success Story
Teach For America (TFA) was launched in 1990 by a Princeton University undergraduate named Wendy Kopp. In her senior thesis she had outlined a proposal for a public school “teaching corps” in low-income neighborhoods, modeled on the Peace Corps. Today the TFA public schools program ranks as one of the biggest success stories in contemporary education.

Working on a shoestring, Kopp put together an original staff of about 500 teachers and administrators. They eventually divided the country up into 22 urban and rural regions where low incomes and lack of resources were contributing heavily to the educational achievement gap. TFA then set about closing that gap.

TFA has grown rapidly and now has 4,400 teachers — supported by a $20 million annual operating budget — working with nearly 400,000 low-income school kids in public schools all across the country.

The TFA corps members attend 14-hour-a-day training sessions for six weeks during the summer before they begin their teaching. So far, more than 17,000 of them have taught 2.5 million U.S. public school children and the program is now on track to double in size by the year 2010. Since TFA began in 1990, 64 UCSD alumni have taught in the program, impacting the lives of 5,440 children.

Test scores and other criteria used by the nation’s public schools to measure academic performance show clearly that the TFA approach to closing the achievement gap has worked successfully almost everywhere.

Tom Nugent is a freelance writer. His last article for @UCSD Magazine was “Portraits of a Chinese Past.”.

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"Teach For America has grown rapidly and now has 4,400 teachers - supported by a $20 million annual operating budget - working with nearly 400,000 low-income school kids in public schools all across the country."