The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 14, 2009


“Teach For America” – the Carlisle connection

Driving home from Canada after the Memorial Day weekend, I turned on the car radio, hoping to catch a program that had been publicized on Maine Public Radio. It was an hour-long lecture by Wendy Kopp, chief executive officer and founder of Teach For America. I had read

Elizabeth Cheever teaches math at a middle school in Atlanta during the five-week training Institute. (Courtesy photo)

several newspaper articles about Kopp’s program, which she founded almost 20 years ago when, as a Princeton University senior, she came up with the idea in her senior thesis. I was eager to learn more.

Teach For America, as Kopp explained it, is a national corps of outstanding recent college graduates from all academic majors who commit to teach for a minimum of two years in under-served urban and rural public schools and to become lifelong leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunities. It is possible for middle-aged people who are changing careers to apply to Teach For America; however, only two percent of recruits are over 30.

The mission of Teach For America is to end educational inequality in the United States. Nine-year-olds in low-income communities are three grades behind their peers in high-income communities. Half of them will not graduate from high school. Author Fareed Zakaria wrote about this same education inequality problem in his book The Post-American World, which was Carlisle’s “2008 Cover-to-Cover Read.”

Applications up 42% in 2009

Teach For America recruits on more than 450 college campuses, seeking seniors and recent graduates who have demonstrated outstanding achievement, perseverance and leadership skills. In 2008, a record 35,000 individuals applied, a 42 percent increase over the previous year. At more than 130 colleges and universities, over 5 percent of the senior class applied. At Ivy League colleges, 11 percent of all seniors applied, including 20 percent of African-American and Latino/Hispanic seniors. Only 15 percent of those students who applied for the 2009 Teach For America corps were accepted. Corps members are paid directly by the school districts where they work and generally receive the same salaries and benefits as other entry-level teachers.

In the 2008-2009 school year, 6,200 corps members were teaching in over 1,600 schools in 29 regions across the country, while more than 14,000 Teach For America alumni continued working from inside and outside the field of education.

Carlisle college graduates get involved

This past spring the Mosquito learned of several Carlisle college graduates who will be members of the 2009 Teach For America corps in the fall. These young people include Elizabeth Cheever, Chris Daniels, Michael Johnson and Ravi Ramanathan. Jason Hult was a 2006 corps member who taught in New York City. Craig Ferraro is a past corps member, as well.

Elizabeth Cheever of Carroll Drive graduated with Honors from Brown University in May, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. Throughout her high school years, Cheever had been interested in teaching. “When I took Mr. Atlas’ BC Calculus class at CCHS (Concord-Carlisle High School), I was convinced that I wanted to teach,” said Cheever. “Mr. Atlas is an inspirational teacher,” she added. As a freshman at Brown, Cheever attended a Teach For America information session aimed at seniors. She remembers being excited about what she learned and calling home to tell her parents about it. On November 7, 2008, then a senior, Cheever applied to Teach For America and on January 20, 2009 she received her acceptance letter.

Cheever was assigned to teach in Atlanta. Her training began with “Induction Week,” an opportunity to bond with other corps members who will be teaching in Atlanta. The second week was the start of what is known as Institute, an intensive five-week learn-how-to-teach “boot camp,” where corps members from Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, Indianapolis, Denver and St. Louis came to learn how to teach and to teach summer school. “On June 15, I taught my first class and stepped into my life as a teacher,” said Cheever. “I am teaching eighth-grade math in a middle school to students who have failed the state math exam. They must pass this exam at the end of the summer if they are to go on to high school in the fall,” she added. “These eighth graders are missing the skills that Carlisle students would have gained in elementary school.” Cheever recently learned she will be teaching at the Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, a school once attended by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Chris Daniels of School Street, a graduate of Columbia University, majored in Religion. During his junior year he became interested in Teach For America and applied for an

Chris Daniels gathers books to take with him to Philadelphia. (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)

internship during that year at Alumni Affairs of Teach For America, located in mid-town New York City. “I worked in the office looking at resumés of those applying for jobs after completing the two-year program,” said Daniels. “I had been in meetings with Wendy Kopp during that time. She has done some neat things,” he added.

Daniels applied to Teach For America in September and heard he had been accepted in mid-November. Eleven percent (110) of his class applied for the corps and 30 students were accepted. “It was a rigorous application process,” admitted Daniels. When we spoke in mid-June, Daniels expressed an eagerness to get to Philadelphia where he would be training during the summer with other corps members from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C. and would then teach summer school in a Philadelphia school. In the fall Daniels will teach math at a charter middle school – “Young Scholars.” “I’ve always had a strong interest in math...and I’m looking forward to moving to a smaller city (after four years of attending college in New York City) where there are family friends,” said Daniels. “It will be rough going in the fall of that first year,” he predicted.

The biggest indicator of a student’s future success

While teaching during these next two years, Daniels plans to earn a masters degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania. “Recent studies have shown that having a phenomenal teacher is the biggest indicator of a student’s future success,” observed Daniels. With that in mind, Daniels mentioned two of his former teachers – Steve Bober at the Carlisle School and Peter Atlas at Concord-Carlisle High School. “They were excellent teachers!”

Michael Johnson (right) relaxes with 2009 Philadelphia corps members (left to right) David Kirui of California, Katie Stroud of New Mexico and Kelly Fedak of Ohio outside their house in south Philly. (Courtesy photo)

Michael Johnson of Ember Lane, a graduate of MIT with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, decided to apply to Teach For America during his senior year. “Recruiters were on campus in December and January. After I learned I was accepted in March, I submitted my preference for grade level, subject, and the region where I wanted to teach,” explained Johnson.” Thirteen students were accepted from MIT, 15 % of those who had applied.

At the time of our interview in June, Johnson knew he would be going to Philadelphia, attending the Institute at Temple University and expected to be teaching high school physics in the fall. At the Institute’s five-week program he would take classes and teach summer school under the supervision of veteran teachers, as would all other newcomers to the program. “I was interested in teaching back when I was in high school,” recalled Johnson. “My extracurricular activities at MIT included some form of teaching – rehearsing music groups, leading informal study groups with classmates, then working as a camp counselor over the summer. I especially enjoyed the teaching parts and that is what led me to look into Teach For America,” said Johnson. “And there are many teachers in my family,” he added.

Trying to close the achievement gap

Teach For America is trying to end educational inequality in the United States. “The achievement gap is something I haven’t seen, coming from the Carlisle Schools, Concord-Carlisle High School, and MIT,” admits Johnson. “I’m committed to working on this problem I’ve heard about, but not seen. Teach For America attributes the achievement gap to lower expectations of students in low-income communities and students of color, by teachers and principals. Teach For America has shown that students held to the highest expectations will meet those expectations,” reported Johnson. Johnson plans to get his master’s degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania while teaching during the next two years and sees himself teaching in the foreseeable future.

Ravi Ramanathan of Peter Hans Road graduated from Brown University in May with a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Policy. He had headed off to Houston, Texas, in early June to attend Teach For America’s summer training program at the University of Houston, before I had a chance to interview him for this article.

I caught up with Ramanathan at the end of July during a visit to his family, before heading off to the school where he will teach for the next two years. “I have been placed in the Mississippi

Ravi Ramanathan teaches social studies during summer training in Houston. (Courtesy photo)

i Delta Region, in the town of Marvell, Arkansas, on the border of Mississippi and Arkansas, a town of 1,500 people,” he explained. “I will be teaching high school biology and chemistry in a school where the student population is 95 percent African-American. They are desperate for science teachers and since I mentioned in my résumé that I had considered going into chemistry in college, they felt this would be an appropriate assignment for me,” added Ramanathan. As an aside, he explained that a train track runs through the town where he will be teaching. On one side of the tracks black students live and attend public schools, while on the other, white students live and attend private schools.

Speaking of his summer training in Houston where he taught eighth-grade social studies, he said it was very tough at first. “Many of us had trouble keeping the classroom under control,” said Ramanathan. “I had a student trying to leave the classroom who pushed me up against the door. It turned out he wasn’t a student at the school at all, but had come to visit his friend who was a student in my class. It was a very difficult environment to be teaching in, but things got better and in the end we got the students to do well on their final test.” At the end of the term, the four teachers who had been teaching the class gave a presentation on what it was like to go to college, showing pictures of themselves at each of their schools taking part in college activities. “We were pleased with the positive response we received,” recalled Ramanathan.

Elizabeth Cheever summed up her experience so far like this. “The days are long and hard. Every day is filled with behavioral issues….and at least one student does not want to learn. I’ve found that I don’t always want to know the answer to ‘How was your weekend?’ because sometimes the answer is about someone in the neighborhood being shot. But even though there are issues and problems, every day there is something positive – a student who asks for help, a student who aces a quiz, a student who helps another student with a concept, a student who participates and a student who focuses. This is what keeps me going. And while I am certainly a novice teacher, I feel myself improving every single day. I am trying to soak in as much as I can here, so that I can apply it in the school-year classroom. I really had no idea how tough this job would be until I started doing it. I’m even more thankful for all the great teachers I have had.”

I suspect Teach For America participants Chris Daniels, Michael Johnson and Ravi Ramanathan would share many of Cheever’s sentiments. Each has worked throughout the summer, with an advisor from Teach For America who has taught for two years, and with other veteran teachers. As the intensive five-week Institute summer school sessions wind down, corps members are looking ahead to the schools and the communities in which they will be teaching, setting goals for their students’ achievement and planning for instruction in the classroom. ∆

A graduate of Teach For America looks back

Jason Hult of Audubon Lane enrolled in Teach For America three summers ago, after graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina. He spent two years teaching in Harlem, which he described as “the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life.” I contacted Hult by email in July as he was traveling to Croatia and this is what I learned from his response:

“One of the challenges of Teach For America, which I think is common to any first job, is that you are constantly forced to reconcile your liberal arts, college-incubated ideals, with the gritty realities of teaching in a high-need school, without significant preparation. I enrolled in Teach for America with a bunch of big conceptual questions — How do we end educational inequality? What values and attitudes should students learn in school? Very quickly those questions were overwhelmed by a deluge of more urgent concerns — What is my policy for letting my kids go to the bathroom? How do I create a bulletin board that will satisfy my principal? What happened to the glue sticks?

“I felt like I had to subordinate all the important stuff. Looking back on it, I realize that those small practical choices can have huge implications. Creating an efficient and just pencil -sharpening procedure is hard, frustrating work, but ultimately those gritty choices help you refine and evolve your educational philosophy and set priorities.

“One major misconception about Teach For America is that the job is difficult because of the population that is being served. On the contrary, all of my third graders were eager to learn. A significant percentage of my students’ parents worked hard to be involved in their child’s education. The job is difficult for a number of other reasons. … Corps members think the most significant factor affecting the achievement gap … is school leadership.”

Hult now teaches in the CITYterm program at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito