U students reach out to underpriviliged in the U.S.

Nina Petersen-Perlman

Melissa Reed’s former students keep her cell phone ringing constantly two years after she finished teaching them.

The Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs student worked at a junior high school in New Orleans in 2003 through Teach for America, a program that puts high-achieving college graduates in low-achieving and poverty-stricken schools.

Reed said she is working with 2006 Minnesota gubernatorial hopeful Steve Kelley to raise money to have a reunion for 15 students she became close with who were scattered across the country after Hurricane Katrina.

Ryan Frailich, the program’s campus campaign manager and psychology and public relations senior, said experiences like Reed’s – of becoming a part of the community in which they teach – are those the program strives to create.

“This is not a volunteer program; it’s an elite leadership program,” he said.

Every year, the program selects approximately 2,100 college graduates out of about 17,000 applicants to commit two years to being full-time, paid teachers at struggling schools in 22 regions across the country.

The selected corps goes to a five-week training institute in the summer where they learn a curriculum and teach summer school, said Brock Grubb, a cultural studies and comparative literature graduate and corps member teaching in North Carolina.

Adjusting to teaching in some of the poorest areas in the country isn’t easy, Reed said.

“The first time I saw the building I thought I was in the wrong place,” she said. “I couldn’t believe there were kids inside.

“In New Orleans there was a sense of resignation and sadness that this is how it is, not ‘We can make this better.’ “

Alyssa Brandt, an applied economics graduate who is teaching in Charlotte, N.C., said it was tough to deal with an education mentality totally different from her own.

“You are secondary in their life and you have to accept that,” she said. “My students have to deal with gangs and a lot of deaths and violence in their families. They come from a lot of brutal backgrounds.”

Past and present corps members said people must have the right outlook to succeed and really make a difference.

“One teacher last year really struggled,” Brandt said. “Kids would yell in her face and threaten her. But her approach was terrible – she was cold and didn’t want to be there.”

Reed and Grubb both emphasized that half the battle in teaching was to have a good attitude.

“Students respect or don’t respect you based on your performance in the classroom,” Grubb said.

The application date for next year’s corps is Feb. 17.

“We’re looking for the most outstanding students capable of being future leaders,” Frailich said. “We need people leading student organizations who have a passion for issues. This is not a résumé builder. This will be your life for two years.”

According to past members, it’s worth it.

“There’s nothing on the planet I can’t do,” Reed said. “I can do anything because I did this.”

Mary Bents, associate dean at the College of Education and Human Ecology, said the program does not prepare students well enough for a career in teaching because they aren’t given comprehensive instruction in the five-week training course.

“Many don’t commit because they find it’s extremely difficult when they don’t have the background and are not prepared for classrooms,” she said.

“It’s not a (good) way to prepare people who are going to be staying in the profession for a while.”