Following the signs from UMN to the classroom

Trekking across campus my senior year, my roommate Lincoln and I must have seen hundreds of signs: a cappella concerts in Northrop Auditorium, bake sales for alternative spring breaks and blood drives that had already passed.

But there was one sign underfoot that caught our attention. In bright, chalky letters was an advertisement for an informational meeting, “End educational inequity. Join Teach For America’s info session tonight!”

We both stopped to give it a second look. At the time, we had no idea that stumbling upon that sidewalk chalking would change the trajectory of our post-graduate lives.

At the info session, I heard an unsettling but familiar story — our education system isn’t working for all children. Just 6 percent of children in our lowest-income communities will graduate from college by age 24. Here in Minnesota, graduation rates for African American students rank 49th out of 50 states. Our graduation rates for Latino and Native students are the worst in the nation.

As I listened to the stories of corps members, I began to connect the dots in my own life. I thought of all of the public policy classes I had taken during college, my summers spent working at debate camps with kids of all backgrounds and even my parents’ decision to move our young family to the Minneapolis suburbs to ensure we went to some of the state’s best schools. On our walk home, we made the decision to apply.

A year later, I found myself just a mile from campus as a 2009 Teach For America-Twin Cities corps member, teaching English at Opportunity High School, an alternative school serving predominantly East African students. As an undergraduate, I had walked past Opportunity dozens of times and always thought of it as that school near the Carlson School of Management. It was this proximity that allowed me to see the stark contrast that exists in American education.

On one side of Cedar Avenue were my former peers, reading about elections across the world or skimming Plato’s “The Republic” for their next philosophy class. Across the street were my students — just as sharp, capable and hardworking — struggling to read our aging textbooks and feeling like the college experience, just across the street, was far beyond their reach.