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Teaching for a better tomorrow

After the latest wave of suburban school shootings, which left many students and teachers wounded or dead, some teachers no doubt have contemplated early retirement. But others, who are affiliated with Teach For America, are voluntarily entering some of America's toughest schools.

Teach For America, a program that hires top-notch college graduates of any major to teach for two years in America's lowest-funded schools, started 10 years ago as an outgrowth of Wendy Kopp's senior thesis at Princeton.

Like the other 98 University graduates who have either participated in the program or who now are participating in Teach For America, second-year Law student Hilary Talbot was not interested in teaching as a career. And she certainly wasn't in the program for the teacher's salary. She said she simply wanted to do her part to help boost the quality of education in under-funded schools.

"I began getting concerned about inequalities in education during my second year in college," said Talbot, a 1996 University graduate who taught in New Orleans. "Just looking at the differences in Richmond schools disturbed me. The disparity is just enormous."

Talbot is one of 5,500 people who have helped diminish the disparity in educational quality by participating in Teach For America.

"Many people come to us excited by the challenge of teaching in school systems that have low funding," said Marion Hodgen, Teach For America recruitment director. "They can't wait to teach the students, and they know they will learn through teaching."

Talbot was one such student who quickly learned the extent of inner-city poverty. She was hired as a gifted resource teacher and traveled between four New Orleans elementary schools, a position not usually given to Teach For America recruits. Even so, the lack of funding was evident.

Each teacher in the inner-city schools where Talbot taught was given $30 for supplies for the entire year. Many schools did not even have photocopy machines, Talbot said.

"It makes it difficult to have a good lesson plan. You have to stretch your creativity when your typical teaching materials are not there. But put a good teacher in a class with just a shoebox, and they'll make a lesson out of it," Talbot said.

Erika Lomax, a 1993 University graduate who now works in Washington, D.C. public schools administration, taught at Jefferson Junior High in Washington between 1993 and 1995 as part of the Teach For America program. In some ways, the funding for her school was worse than Talbot's New Orleans schools -- Lomax said teachers in her school received no money for supplies.

"Most of the things I bought came from my own pocket," Lomax said. "I roomed with a woman who teaches in Fairfax [County], and she would show me all her teaching tools. Some of her posters were laminated. My kids can't have that. We're definitely not providing equal opportunity."

Economic conditions aren't much better for inner-city and rural students when they are at home.

"Many of these kids don't have crayons at home to make their posters pretty, and nearly all of them are on the free lunch program," Talbot said.

And that's not all. Talbot and Lomax ran into problems contacting parents because some did not have phones. Many did not have cars. Others just weren't around. As these women discovered, the only way to contact some parents and guardians is by visiting them at their homes in the inner-city.

"You can't be confined to the middle-class mentality with two parents and two cars. Sometimes you have to go to these kids' grandparents if the parents aren't around," Talbot said. "You don't want to be intrusive. But a lot of times they are thankful that someone reached out."

During the summers of 1994, 1995 and 1997, Talbot worked as a counselor at the Summer Enrichment Camp in Charlottesville. The camp is affiliated with the Education School and Talbot said she could see a difference between gifted students in the inner-city and gifted elementary students in the suburbs.

Students at the Charlottesville camp were academically strong, while the gifted New Orleans students had Cs in classes but "could write a good creative story or quickly solve a problem," she said.

The New Orleans' fourth graders did not have the vocabulary like "a normal fourth grader would have," she said.

Part of the difference is the amount of time these students have to spend on school work, Talbot said.

"A lot of these kids have a lot to worry about besides finishing their homework. They are worrying about just surviving at home," she said. "Just about everyone I taught knew someone who was in jail or saw a person get shot or knew someone who was shot. They are just kids, and they have to deal with these issues."

Some of these issues, like violence and drugs, spill over into the classroom. Although Lomax said most of her students were well-behaved, there was a lot of talk about drugs among her students. A native of the D.C. area and a product of its public schools, she said she was not as shocked to hear students talking about drugs as someone might be coming from the suburbs. Still, she notes a difference in students' attitudes today compared to her generation.

"I was only in junior high 10 years ago. A lot has changed in the culture. Many of my students would talk about drugs," Lomax said.

Talbot's experience was similar. But instead of drugs as the dominant issue, violence was more prevalent. While Talbot said she was never in danger of being hurt, she witnessed a large number of aggressive outbursts.

"These kids are exposed to violence, and they are taught to fight back. I saw kids swatting at each other. Some principals wouldn't tolerate it, but other schools just seemed chaotic," she said.

That's when training can pay off. Teach For America participants spend five weeks in the summer in Houston learning how to teach and maintain order before their first year in the classroom.

During the day, new recruits teach summer school in Houston public schools. In the afternoon, recruits meet with mentors, many of whom are experienced teachers who share lesson plans with the newcomers. Seminars come late in the afternoon. The wee hours of the night are reserved for creating lesson plans.

"The days are packed. I call it 'boot camp,' but you appreciate it later when nothing is working and you have a big bag of tricks to rely on," Talbot said. "On a good day, I don't think any first-year teacher has control of their class for more than 45 minutes. In training, we learn how to manage a classroom."

In training Talbot said many recruits say they do not believe in yelling at a child when a student acts up.

"But you get a rude awakening when your creative lesson plans aren't going well because the kids aren't listening," she said.

Summer training teaches new recruits to be firm and to have high expectations. Later, after recruits have been in the classroom, Teach For America participants frequently meet to discuss their teaching experiences.

"They act as a great support system. On the day when you are yelled at by a parent and your favorite kid acts out and a lesson plan doesn't work, you know you are not alone," Talbot said. "You know there are other teachers going through the same thing."

Low-funding plus the occasional outburst by an unruly student seems like the equation for a teacher's instant nervous breakdown, which is why Teach For America selects only the most motivated people who can deal with the challenges posed by the inner-city and rural environments.

Last year, 3,005 college graduates applied to Teach For America. Only 30 percent were accepted into the program. There is no limit to the number of applicants that can be chosen, but the program requires a person to be "a self-starter and a high achiever with proven leadership abilities," Hodgen said.

Those involved in the program are paid salaries equal to that of other teachers in the same school district, Hunt said.

Teach For America will bring former corps members to the University Thursday for an information session. Hodgen said Teach For America enjoys recruiting at the University.

"U.Va. is a great place for recruiting. The school has many people who have leadership experience," Hodgen said. "If you want to have an immediate level of responsibility after college, this is a great program. This challenge is something that is meaningful, and you'll take what you learn with you for the rest of your life"

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