Friday, February 09, 2007

Why I Joined Teach For America

My life has seen many changes in the past month. I researched my options with Teach For America and conversed with alumni about the program. I accepted an offer to teach secondary science in Los Angeles. I lost further interest in graduate school and research. I enrolled in “The Achievement Gap: Causes and Solutions” DeCal. I elected to be reassigned to teaching secondary biology in the South Bay Area, and I have been allowed to do so. In preparation for my approaching future, my recent past has oft been spent thinking critically about this next step in my life. I’ve never detailed the whys publicly, however.

Consider this a primer on my newly found desire for teaching in low-income public schools. I hope to persuade you to also consider committing 2 years of your life after college to joining the TFA corps.

Any standard Teach For America essay is required by imaginary laws of nature to start off with the following introduction:

“In America today, educational inequity persists along socioeconomic and racial lines.

Nine-year-olds growing up in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities.

Half of them won't graduate from high school.

Those who do graduate will, on average, read and do math at the level of eighth graders in high-income communities.

These disparities severely limit the life prospects of the 13 million children growing up in poverty today. And, because African-American and Latino/Hispanic children are three times as likely to grow up in a low-income area, these disparities also prevent many children of color from truly having equal opportunities in life.”

These statistics constitute what is commonly called the Achievement Gap, or the discrepancy in successes of children from varying backgrounds. Studies show that the financial stability of a family is a direct determinant of the opportunities available to their children. Here are a few more figures that flesh out the disturbing realities of the Achievement Gap:

Children growing up in low-income areas are seven times less likely to graduate from college than children in high-income areas. (Source: Education Trust, 2002.)

While children from families making over $90,000 have a one in two chance of graduating from college by age 24, that number plummets to one in 17 for children from families making less than $35,000. (Source: Education Trust, 2004.)

In 2000, Caucasian students had a national public high school graduation rate of 78%. The graduation rate for African-American students during the same year was 56%, and for Latino/Hispanic students was 54%. (Source: The Manhattan Institute, 2001.)

Before they even begin school, kids in these areas are already fighting an uphill battle to ever be able to match the successes of students from more affluent areas. Reason number one for my interest in this program logically follows:

I Believe in Equality of Opportunity

America idealizes concepts of equal opportunity and liberty of outcome, yet we do not have that today. Racism, sexism, and similar isms detriment our society by favoring certain folks over others for reasons that preclude choice. We cannot choose our parents or our culture just as we cannot alter the way gravity works, yet characteristics like these still largely impact our daily lives. For example, being white privileges me in many ways that others do not experience. And that’s not right.

Similarly, for our children experiencing the world through the methodical journeys of education in the classroom, there are some choices already indefinitely made for them, like if they qualify for school subsidized free lunches. Or if their schools can afford books.

I’m dedicated to the ideas of social justice because I believe that folks all deserve the same chances in life to succeed and grow. Younger folks in our public schools are entitled to that same American ideal of equal opportunity. Being an engaged and motivated teacher in these neighborhoods will give kids the educational opportunities hitherto withheld from them.

Along with strong American ideals of opportunities for all, you may be surprised when I say

I Believe in Service to my Country and Global Community

Of course, there’s really no need to be all that surprised, for the word service entails more than just conscription. There are myriad paths available to the citizen looking to better his community and strengthen his country: He may enlist in the Marines to protect our borders and interests abroad; He may join the Peace Corps to safeguard human rights for all; He may become a Big Brother and mentor teenagers in a nearby district. Any one of these commitments would have a marked impact on our country and the community at large. Service to our communities means simply giving back to the society that made us who we are, to recognize its merits and to fix its faults.

Teach For America is an opportunity to do that, to recognize the merits of a publicly-funded and readily-accessible education, and to strive to improve this education for those it neglects. Expanding educational opportunities? Just think of the impact one can have on society by doing this. Educated and motivated youths mature into a talented and inspired work force and return the favor for the next generation. Children are our most important investment and thus service toward their education needs to be our priority.

And hey, why not reinstitute the draft and incorporate this definition of service? I’d wager that a mandatory 2-year service stint for adults 18-25 years of age would bring about a major improvement in our urban and rural communities and in our international relations, not to mention empower the young generation with the skills to become successful leaders in any work sector they enter.

We approach a third and final self truth:

I Believe in Personal Betterment through Service

Many college students are opposed to this. Ask a Berkeley undergraduate to defer the working world for an additional 2 years upon graduation and you might be regarded as joking. Or flirtatious if you happen to be a cute girl and he an engineer.

Service should not be seen as an obstacle to professional development, but as another avenue for it. Service to my residents over the past 2 years has empowered me with the administrative and interpersonal skills necessary to be a leader in any future career. Service to my students over the next 2 years will continue to shape me in this regard, by setting educational goals and working diligently to achieve those goals through exciting and creative ways to teach and inspire.

Aside from further refinement of leadership skills, Teach For America offers a chance for college graduates to give back to society through service and dedication. The Achievement Gap is our generation’s civil rights movement, and Teach For America a channel through which we can create necessary change in our communities. I am teaching after college because I am proud of the ideal of equal opportunities for all that this nation is built on, and because I want to help make it a reality.

Do the same. The final deadline to apply for the 2007 corps is Sunday, February 18. Visit the website for application information.

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