East Side Success Story

A University graduate reports back on his experience with Teach For America.

It was the last class of the first day of the semester. I had already taught two other classes âÄî a section each of English 9 and English 10 âÄî that day in Room 233 at East High School in Kansas City, Mo.
In each, we discussed a handful of logistical items relating to the school year, we played a get-to-know-you game, and the students completed a survey about their expectations for the class.
The final bell rang, the students headed home, and I held a stack of student surveys in my hand.
One caught my attention. In response to the question âÄúWhat are your goals for this school year?âÄù the student, Juan Garcia, responded with a graphic and less-than-respectful account of his hopes for relations with the female students at East High School that year. I had no choice but to pull him aside the following day.
During my sophomore year of college, an unexpected e-mail invitation to meet with a representative from Teach For America âÄî an organization I had never heard of âÄî began my path toward Room 233. From that first meeting on, I was sure that it was an organization I wanted to be a part of.
IâÄôd previously considered going into education, and TFA provides a route into the neediest classrooms in America, and it provided me with more than enough preparation to be successful.
Despite my training, my voice still quivered when, during the next day of school, I notified Juan that he would be staying after class to speak with me.
Despite my fears, he didnâÄôt argue. IâÄôd had consistent trouble from him and a few of his friends that day. Juan and I discussed both his behavior and his inappropriate response to the survey. I was impressed with his demeanor, as it was far more serious than anything I had seen in class up to that point. We agreed that he would be more respectful on class assignments and that his behavior would be more purposeful in the classroom. It wasnâÄôt a magic bullet, but I could see that he no longer led his buddies into mischief, and I viewed this as progress.
TFA is quickly becoming one of the nationâÄôs most influential employers of recent college graduates. With an applicant pool of over 46,000 people, including 3 percent of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs graduating class, TFA is doing a remarkable job bringing some of the nationâÄôs best and brightest college graduates into the most desperate schools.
TFA teachers are placed into schools where the education achievement gap is not an abstract political concept but a human tragedy âÄî students in the 10th grade reading at the third-grade level, algebra one students who struggle with multiplying whole numbers. It takes very little time for new TFA teachers to recognize why their students need them.
JuanâÄôs real turnaround started in mid-October when the students who read significantly below grade level âÄî over 75 percent of the students on my roster âÄî were removed from their English classes and placed in a special reading class designed to raise their reading scores. This reduced my class sizes significantly and left me with only the students at or near grade level âÄî an incredible opportunity to really push these top students.
The one exception, probably the result of a clerical error, was Juan. Though he read multiple levels below grade level, he was not placed in the reading class. I knew, however, that students who are pushed beyond their current abilities could rise to the challenge; Juan did just that and made incredible growth during the next few months. As a result of another change, in February I switched schedules and no longer taught JuanâÄôs class. However, Juan and his fellow sophomores were moved into the pre-AP English class âÄî the equivalent of an honors class âÄî which was taught by an excellent fellow teacher in the department. I knew Juan and the others were in good hands.
TFA is a two-year commitment. However, those two years have a lifelong impact on the outlook and aspirations of its alumni. As a result, TFA alumni represent a growing force in education reform. Two-thirds of TFAâÄôs alumni base is still involved in education, including some of the most influential names in education today. Other alumni have gone on to careers in various fields, taking the leadership experience that they gained in their time in the classroom to other positions.
JuanâÄôs growth continued in ways I couldnâÄôt have imagined. He remained in the pre-AP program in his junior year. In addition to English, he enrolled in advanced courses of other subjects. He ran for a position on student council, was elected and was quickly selected as president due to his clear leadership skills and his desire for action.
Though I didnâÄôt have him in class my second year, he would stop by every few days to check in with me. His aspirations to be a doctor, which had taken form during his sophomore year, flourished his junior year. The one barrier he faced, which we had discussed many times, was the difficulties he faced going to college, as he did not have U.S. citizenship.
Instead of giving up hope, as many others might have, he became involved with a group that worked to expand knowledge and support for the DREAM Act, legislation that would essentially allow noncitizen residents of America to earn their citizenship by getting a college degree. Juan missed a day of school âÄî a rarity âÄî to travel to Jefferson City, Mo., last spring to talk with legislators about the DREAM Act.
TFAâÄôs impact can be felt not only across the country in schools and classrooms but also in other spheres of influence, and perhaps nowhere more strongly than in discussions of education reform. Now in my third year of teaching at KIPP Endeavor Academy, I am proud to be a part of the TFA movement. Any doubts that a recent college graduate can have a real impact on peopleâÄôs lives are immediately dispelled in a discussion with any TFA alumni.
On Tuesday, June 2, 2010, following the long Memorial Day weekend, I had a department meeting during my first block plan period. I entered the room and could immediately sense that something terrible had happened. No one spoke, and multiple teachers were crying. I then found out that Juan had been shot and killed outside his home, immediately in front of his young sister and best friend. The shooter drove up, fired and fled.
We later found out the shooting was the result of a disagreement over a soccer game that Juan had played in over the weekend. The memorial we held later that week included a chance to speak about Juan. I was unable to compose myself sufficiently to speak, but those who did all reminded me of just how far Juan had come in the previous year and a half âÄî about his personal integrity, his desire to help those who need it and his infectious sense of humor.
JuanâÄôs death represents a tremendous tragedy, not just for those who knew him, but for what it says about our America today. News coverage was scarce, particularly beyond the simple facts of the incident. In the news stories, Juan was not the student council president who was an activist for immigration reform and aspired to be a doctor; Juan was homicide number 44 In Kansas City, Mo. (out of 106 in 2010).
How many of those involved in the 106 incidents âÄî killer or killed âÄî had received a decent education? How many of them had opportunities beyond a world of poverty and hopelessness? These numbers are a direct result of the achievement gap in Kansas City and across America. Everyone is entitled to an equal and excellent education. Many people receive just this. Others donâÄôt. TFA addresses this very issue. There are countless people like Juan in schools across America: students with the desire to make something out of themselves and with the drive to accomplish this. What many of them donâÄôt have is an excellent teacher who shows them that they can succeed and gives them the tools they need. This is why I Teach For America.