Reach the Children

Teach for America sends bright college graduates into the nation’s toughest schools. Not everyone likes the idea, but when you’re putting out a fire, you don’t ask where the water’s coming from.

 

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Across town from Cesar Batalla School, in Bridgeport’s East End, first-year TFA corps member Sarah Horkel teaches 7th-grade English at the Laurence Dunbar School. Dunbar has one of the lowest student achievement scores in the state; last year, only 13 percent of its 400 K-8 students reached state education goals. 

Horkel grew up in Westport, a town only 15 minutes from Dunbar. Yet her childhood education was light years away in terms of quality. “The discrepancy between opportunities that children in affluent towns get compared to low-income communities can make you feel angry,” she says. “It’s something I feel very passionate about.”

After high school, Horkel attended SUNY-Binghamton University. Majoring in English, she was leaning toward a career in publishing—that is, until she met a TFA campus recruiter. “Her enthusiasm just mesmerized me. I knew right away this is what I needed to be doing,” she says.

Horkel’s day at Dunbar begins at 7 a.m. and usually ends 11 hours later.  “I’m hoping to get a year-and-a-half to two years of reading growth from my students,” says Horkel, 22, who teaches five classes daily. “I’m not where I want to be yet,” she says.

“There’s definite progress being made, but there’s a lot to accomplish.”

It won’t be easy. Clearly, she cares deeply about her pupils. As a neophyte language arts teacher in an impoverished school, however, she must learn how to be tough—but not too tough. It’s a delicate balance.

Sometimes it’s a matter of “turning on” just one kid.

“I have a student who hardly participated in class,” says Horkel. “Most of the time he was outright disruptive. I put extra effort into him. The other day I gave him a test and he really put in the effort. He was writing paragraphs, actually invested in the test, in his achievement. That was just incredible, and makes up for the days that are so difficult and the obstacles that seem so large. The feeling of progress that you’ve made with one student can give you the push you need.”

Unfortunately, many students are impossible to reach. The resulting level of frustration in part accounts for the number of TFA corps members who do not stay past their mandatory period.

“As a short-term policy measure, TFA has supplied teachers to schools in desperate need of them,” says John Yrchick, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, which is the state’s teachers’ union. “But does it address the need for a stable corps of high- quality teachers? No, it doesn’t. And clearly, for schools to be able to sustain positive change, they need teachers to stay.”

While it is true that only about 44 percent of TFA teachers remain in their placement schools for more than two years, and that fewer than 15 percent stay in those schools more than four years, the turnover rate is even higher in many low-income districts for young teachers coming into the profession from more traditional routes.    

So shouldn’t the focus be on improving the teaching environment—rather than the teachers themselves—in poor communities?

“Sure,” says Fleischman, “that’d be great. And if you can figure out how to make a tough urban school just as appealing as, say, a school in Simsbury, I’d be interested to learn about it and I’ll do what I can.

“Until then,” he adds, “if someone from TFA can bump the reading level of these kids by two years in one year, I’d like to see that teacher in that classroom.”

Meanwhile, more and more graduating college seniors are signing up to spend two years in America’s poorest communities. In 2007, TFA applications jumped from 18,000 to 25,000. A number of factors may account for the trend. For one thing, in a slow economy teaching becomes more attractive because it’s generally considered stable. Still, TFA’s growth can’t simply be credited to a slow economy.

Reach the Children

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