Students become socially aware

So you were captain of your college tennis team? You were president of Columbia’s Student Council?

You spent your summer building homes in Haiti? Plus you had a job at the United Nations and served as the editor of your school newspaper?

If so, you just might have a shot at getting to work in the one of the most impoverished corners of the nation, with the bonus of a minimum wage salary, 10-hour work days and little time to socialize with people of your own age.

Despite what you’re thinking, this job description has been alluring enough to merit the two-year commitment of 10,000 graduates who have served as part of Teach For America since its inception in 1990.

Perhaps a more appropriate name for TFA is “Peace Corps in the Classroom,” as the purpose of this program, the brainchild of Princeton Student Wendy Kopp, is to place recent grads from the nation’s top universities in low achieving schools.

Those selected are drawn from an extremely competitive applicant pool, with 5 percent of 16,000 applicants coming from Yale, Princeton and Northwestern.

The average GPA of the 2003 corps stands at 3.5. The acceptance rate for 2003 was 13 percent.

The hope is that TFA participants’ energy and scholarly achievements will be enough to make a positive impact on elementary and secondary education – even though the grads are unaccredited as teachers and likely never had an education course.

George Washington University senior Jess Crowell found TFA’s mission a compelling idea and decided to apply for the 2004 corps.

After making it past the initial application procedures, Crowell was invited back for an interview.

The interview, which lasted hours, consisted of 10 other Teach For America applicants, who each displayed their aptitude for problem solving, simulated a lesson, and interviewed with two Teach For America alumni.

“I was sitting in this room with some of the smartest, and most well rounded people, and we were all basically showing off, trying to make ourselves seem better than the next person,” Crowell said. “It definitely was one of the most competitive atmospheres I’ve been in for a while. At least I knew if I didn’t get it, it would be because I got beaten out by someone who was more than worthy.”

On Dec. 18, Crowell received a letter accepting her into the program.

“I was shocked to see that I had been accepted, especially after all my friends who had interviewed got rejected.”

Weeks later she received her assignment: the South Bronx.

“I had put down Atlanta, Georgia, as my first choice; New York City wasn’t in the top three. I’m a little intimidated to teach in the Bronx,” the petite blonde said.

“Especially after I found out a student had been shot and killed there a few months earlier.”

Of course, the Teach For America Web site profiles the positive experiences of former corps members, hyping the redeeming qualities of such a commitment.

Information sessions focus on the amazing stories of inspired classrooms thriving because of the devoted corps.

The Web site says: “We need those of you who have what it takes – both to excel as a teacher despite immense challenges, and to ultimately assume great influence in your country – to step up and take our effort forward.”

This is but a shadow of warning of the hard path to follow.

Of course, each experience is unique, and not always positive.

The story of 22-year-old Yale Graduate Joshua Kaplowitz, assigned to teach fifth grade at Emery Elementary in Washington, D.C., is enough to deter all but the most ambitious of individuals.

After experiencing racial harassment, a disapproving principal and an inability to control his class, Kaplowitz was sued for $20 million by a parent whose son claimed Kaplowitz pushed him (an incident Kaplowitz firmly denies).

After Kaplowitz was arrested and tried for assault, a charge on which he was acquitted, the school system and the teachers’ union eventually settled the case for $75,000.

He reflects on his experience as an unfortunate result of resentment directed toward him from accredited teachers; the principal and parents, and a lack of support the three-person D.C. Teach For America staff was capable of providing.

Asked if this story conjured hesitation, Crowell said, “I think anyone accepting this responsibility knows what she’s getting into. You just have to be overly cautious with every turn.”

Of course accounts of positive experiences and the ever-growing enrollment and competitiveness of the applicant pool is cause for counter examination.

Allison Serafin, a member of the 2002 corps, taught sixth grade language arts and social studies classes at Attucks Middle School in Houston, Texas. Her classes ranged from 22 to 28 students.

“The experience was everything I thought it would be and more. I expected it be challenging, but after one week in the classroom I learned that I had never had a job that was really ‘challenging’ before in my life,” Serafin said.

“Most of my students were far below grade level and faced many challenges of poverty, such as inadequate nutrition and lack of quality housing,” she said.

“My responsibility, and the responsibility of all corps members, was to ensure that my students were able to overcome these obstacles in order to make significant academic gains.”

Serafin said the program’s summer prep institute helped ready her for the classroom with “foundation skills necessary to become an effective teacher.”

She admits that there were times when the frustrations and setbacks gave her a sense of defeat, yet, “at the end of my ‘oh, poor me’ moments I had to roll up my sleeves and get back in there for them. … I spent every waking moment either with my students or thinking about my students.”

Though she had to go above and beyond the hours she was technically paid for, Serafin said one trade off was the relationships she gained from the program.

She enthusiastically talks about the contact she keeps with former students and the inspirational effect it has on her today in her job as a TFA program director in Philadelphia.

Monique Jaramillo, Deputy Director of Marketing Communications at the New York Teach For America office spoke passionately about the important role of alumni in perpetuating the mission of TFA.

“We need a force of leaders, people in every sector,” Jaramillo said. “People who, after seeing the challenges that students face in these low-income communities, will continue to bring about fundamental, long term change.”

Said Serafin: “I hope I made a difference in the lives of my students _ I hope that they look at the world with a critical eye and believe that their academic success is possible with hard work and determination.”