Teach For America works to ensure that youth has access to top notch education.
Question: Does anyone know the best metrics for academic success and excellence among American youth? Between constant bickering from debating (and often inaccessible) parents, school board representatives, administrators and politicians, no one can seem to figure out an appropriate response. Neither are standardized test scores a key determinant in deciding where the best and brightest kids are in this country. Socioeconomics and ethnicity are seemingly always the scapegoats for children obtaining a solid education and a bright future, but is there anything else people can do to ensure that their children are being led in the right direction?
Kids having equal access to a quality education is a lingering concern. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and The National Center For Education Statistics (NCES) conjointly report on their websites that ninety-nine thousand American public elementary and secondary schools host approximately forty-nine million students. The U.S. Department of Commerce and Census Bureau released another report in 2011 insisting that the country’s high school dropout rate was at 8.1 percent since 2009: a significant decline for African Americans and Hispanics, traditionally perceived as having the highest dropout rates. Whether it’s by having relevant and valid reading materials, state-of-the-art technological tools and equipment, well-equipped and structured facilities and most importantly – well-prepared and qualified teachers in the classrooms – a good education is a basic civil right: not a privilege.
So what would be the ultimate solution to combat such a war against the youth? In comes Teach For America (TFA): the ultimate relief effort to ensure that highly-trained educators — recent college graduates — provide two-year teaching stints in urban and rural areas to drive, motivate and encourage underprivileged and underrepresented young students to become successful scholars. To date, thirty-three thousand TFA corp members have impacted three million students in 43 communities. During the 2011-12 season, nine thousand TFA members influenced six hundred thousand students with twenty-four thousand alumni continuing to aid in passing education-based legislation and enhancing the morale of public schools into top quality, high-performing institutions and programs. The brainchild of then Princeton University undergraduate student Wendy Kopp in 1989, TFA is the result of her thesis project that envisions leadership, teamwork, diversity, respect, humility and transformational change. By the next year, 500 recent grads created what would become the ultimate educational movement of this generation. TFA cadets are social crusaders, committed leaders and social activists who lead the fight to eliminate educational inequalities between low income and wealthy children.
At the end of 2012, 3.2 million students are expected to receive a high school diploma. In the Metro Atlanta area, 400 TFA cadets are making their mark on the community. “This problem is solvable,” says Shyam Kumar, TFA’s Executive Director for Metro Atlanta. “When we go from classroom to classroom to classroom, we see that everyone of these kids have an incredible amount of potential, passion, joy and love in them to do amazing things. The unfortunate reality is that many of these students aren’t given the opportunity to bring that potential out.”
Currently, American public schools employ 3.2 million teachers: a pupil/teacher ratio of 15 to five. In another 2011 NCES report, estimated expenditures of $525 billion went towards public schools. Kumar – involved for three years with TFA — is a strong reflection of the advocacy organization’s values and principles. Prior to his Executive Director duties, he worked five years with General Electric: eventually transitioning to the company’s foundation for a year. He witnessed the bulk of the foundation’s philanthropic efforts going towards local school districts’ low income schools’ curriculum and instruments. “While all of those things are important, the thing that mattered most were great teachers,” he says.
A self-proclaimed visionary who knows where he comes from, Kumar is the product of South Indian origins; he candidly discusses his parents’ impoverished living conditions as youth themselves. They were limited to two meals a day – a luxury according to Kumar — with virtually no money to pay for anything. Still, Kumar’s father, who he calls “brilliant,” would sit on the roof with only a piece of chalk and a passion for math. As Kumar thinks about his father’s perseverance, he says he thinks hard about youth who has just as much dedication as his father.
“There were great teachers and an incredible community wrapped around him,” he adds. “They were the community that saw his brilliance and said, ‘We’re not gonna let this kid fail.’ He was part of a very different pathway in life, and it broke generations of poverty and the cycle that plagued him and our family for many years and many generations. It’s an opportunity to talk about how great our kids are – brilliant kids not given the shot they deserve – and the fact they need everyone around them to believe in them.” Kumar further acknowledges that TFA allows him to connect closely with his leadership role and how he impacts the community, too. “Promise is about having unlimited potential. It’s being really bold. It’s not stopping no matter what comes in your way. This is what could really be possible when you have hundreds of talented teachers, hundreds of dedicated public officials and hundreds of principals all working together on the same cause and what’s really possible for our kids long term.”
During TFA – Metro Atlanta’s Thurs., Mar. 29, 2012 “A Night of Promise” celebration, concluding TFA’s Promise Week, at the Woodruff Arts Center, nine-time Grammy Award-winner John Legend expresses his long-standing support for the work the organization does: calling TFA “near and dear to his heart and particularly important.” A humanitarian himself with his own Show Me Campaign, which helps to eradicate poverty with education, along with his global efforts in Africa, endorsement of President Obama, collaboration with Samsung’s “Solve For Tomorrow” Campaign and his own socially conscious music (i.e. collaborative album, Wake Up!, with fellow Grammy Award-winning hip hop band The Roots and his contributions to the Davis Guggenheim-directed documentary on the public school system, Waiting For Superman), Legend believes his endorsement of TFA, along with sitting on the boards for The Education Equality Project and the Harlem Village Academies, runs a parallel line to his own work.
“I care about educational inequality in this country,” Legend says. “TFA is leading the way in figuring out what makes a great teacher…in training, supporting and teaching in critical ways to ensure that they’re highly effective so that they can go out and fight to reform. They provide all of the key ingredients to ensure that our country can attain an excellent education. They take a group of young people and turn them into leaders in our educational system.” Even Kumar knows the musician is a man of high integrity. “[John] really believes in kids. It’s shown up in every part of his life.”
In the midst of a heartwarming performance from behind the piano, Legend performs covers of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody” along with his own compositions, “Save Room” and “Ordinary People.” He also shares a few statistics with the Atlanta Symphony Hall’s packed house: noting that America’s rank dropped from #1 to #18 for education and half of the high school dropout rates come from 15 percent of American schools. The distinguished TFA National Board Member acknowledges Atlanta as “one of his favorite places on Earth;” Legend believes that effective teachers are the most important factor in boosting student achievement. “It’s too often our kids are getting lost in the system. We can’t fulfill that promise if we don’t have a strong educational system. Education is the civil rights issue of our time because if we don’t get that right, we can’t make this country as great as it needs to be. We know that every kid deserves a bright future. Whether our kids go to public school, we want to give them the opportunity to aspire to something great. In order for us to turn this around, young people need and deserve great teachers in their classrooms. We got to have great teachers leading our kids.”
Progress is definitely being made; the 2011-12 season – according to both IES and NCES – predicts 19.7 million American youth, an astounding 4.4 million increase since 2000, are expected to attend college. The organizations also note that from 2000 to 2009, college enrollment for African American students increased from 11.3 to 14.3 percent while Hispanics accounted for 9.5 to 12.5 percent. Still, in order to ensure education is held to a high regard, TFA knows not only that well-trained professionals in the classrooms are essential, but community involvement and support are also beneficial to the cause.
“It’s more important than class size, the number of dollars spent per student, the quality of the building, the textbooks and materials,” Legend says. “Go to a school board meeting. Find out what’s going on in the schools in Atlanta. Volunteer at your neighborhood school. Vote for politicians who are working to fix our educational system, and continue to donate to organizations that are making a difference. Let’s all make a decision and make a commitment together. We’re gonna roll up our sleeves, and we’re gonna make it happen.”
For more information on Teach For America, log onto www.teachforamerica.org, like Teach For America on Facebook or follow @TeachForAmerica on Twitter.
Words: Christopher Daniel
Photos: Joshua M. Peltier