At that time, the one overcrowded middle school in the area had some of the worst test scores in the city. Today, Excel is one of Boston’s leading public schools. In an area where many students never even dream of going to college, Excel regularly sends its students to top high schools that feed into selective universities.
The charter school movement has been sweeping across urban public education for the past 15 years, and one of its primary drivers, at least in recent years, has been Teach For America, which recruits top college graduates for two-year stints in high-need communities. Indeed, TFA alumni are responsible for some of the nation’s most successful school networks, including the Knowledge Is Power Program and YES Prep Public Schools.
Still, TFA’s most appealing aspect—that it allows students who are unsure of their future to provide a valuable service—is also potentially its greatest weakness. Critics often question whether a short foray into the classroom can really achieve the organization’s oft-stated goal of closing the racial and income achievement gaps in education. And in locations such as New Orleans, which has become a major center of TFA activity following Hurricane Katrina, local conditions make this task even more challenging.
Komal Bhasin ’03 was a neurobiology concentrator at Harvard who says that she has always had a passion for social justice. Although she considered the pre-med track, Bhasin eventually decided that a career in medicine might not be for her.
“We would always talk about how we could improve the world in class,” Bhasin tells me. “We would have these theoretical discussions about how to change world poverty, and I was always like, ‘Well, why don’t we go out and do something?’”
“The minute I heard about TFA, I wanted to join the program,” recalls Bhasin, who served as a TFA corps member from 2003 to 2005 and is now the principal of Excel.
When I visit Excel, Bhasin is standing in a large hallway on Excel’s first floor. Ringed by chairs, the corridor serves as an auditorium for morning class meetings, where some of Bhasin’s eighth graders have just finished presenting essays about their dreams for the future. One student, a girl dressed in the school’s uniform of a blue collared shirt and khakis, told the students, teachers, and administrators in the audience that watching her brother’s arrest had motivated her to someday become a lawyer.
To help her students achieve their goals, Bhasin runs a tight ship. Even before the school day begins, Bhasin takes care to keep the school strictly in order. She greets every student by name in the morning and checks that his or her uniform, including socks and belts, is worn correctly before letting the student in.
“We’re definitely a no excuses school,” she says. “We believe that the best way for for a student to learn is to participate in a highly structured environment. By sweating the small stuff we build a foundation for more important activities.”
At Excel, where each classroom is named after a teacher’s alma mater, the main focus is on giving students the skills to participate in higher education. The students in classroom Harvard-6 are painstakingly attentive. Their eyes follow the teacher’s movements across the room—a method called “tracking”—and almost every hand goes up when a question is asked. When one student has trouble answering a problem about exponential notations, his classmates snap their fingers to show their support.
This community that Bhasin and the Excel leadership have cultivated exemplifies a key TFA tenet: with proper guidance and structure, any child can achieve.
Polls show that most Americans believe kids fall behind in school due to a lack of motivation, insufficient community support, and inadequate parental supervision, says Meredith D. Boak, the TFA recruiter who covers Harvard. But TFA and Excel’s philosophies take a different tack, arguing that all students can learn if teachers—as well as parents and students—try untraditional methods.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Places with less ingrained school systems than Boston are where this approach is really being put to the test. In New Orleans, historically underachieving schools and the devastation wrought by Katrina have combined to draw hundreds of like-minded reformers to the city.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, the New Orleans school system has been fragmented into three parts—a dozen independent charter schools, 33 charters that are under the supervision of New Orleans’s Recovery School District, and 34 public schools run directly by the RSD.
“It’s such a compelling moment in time to rebuild,” former TFA recruiter Joshua Z. Biber tells me about New Orleans’s popularity as a corps site. According to Biber, the number of corps members being sent to New Orleans doubled between 2007 and 2008.
Patricia L. Pringle ’07, who currently teaches high school biology at O. Perry Walker Charter High School in the St. John the Baptist Parish of New Orleans, tells me that Katrina left “this void that needed to be filled.”
“New Orleans started from scratch in terms of their public schools, and I thought it was a great opportunity to jump into the education reform movement,” Pringle says. “Basically, I wanted to look back on the experience and say, ‘For two years of my life, I did something that was great and definitely had an impact.’”
Since TFA was founded in 1990, thousands of recent graduates like Pringle have transformed the organization into one of the most influential forces in education. The organization’s faith in the elite students with no teaching experience is not surprising—it is the brainchild of Wendy Kopp who proposed creating a corps of young, idealistic teachers in her senior thesis.
At Harvard, Teach For America’s presence has grown steadily in the past few years. Bhasin recalls that her choice to apply felt like a radical departure from the choices of her classmates; indeed, she was just one of three Harvard students in her New Orleans corp. Five years later, TFA has become a popular option for seniors. Nearly a tenth of last year’s graduating class applied, according to Biber. Pringle was one of thirty-three Harvard graduates to sign on as a corps member.
“It’s not competitive, as in no one is competing for a certain number of spots—we take all people that are qualified,” Biber says. “But the model is selective. It is a very hard job—it’s the hardest thing I could have done out of college,”
While Pringle has the same goals as Bhasin and Excel Academy, she says that the lack of community and infrastructure in New Orleans can present a whole new set of challenges. Even though Pringle had mentally prepared herself for the difficulties of living and teaching in New Orleans, she told me that she still found herself overwhelmed and worried that her limited time with TFA would not allow her to make the impact she had hoped.
During her first year at her charter high school, Pringle woke up each day at 5 a.m.—she had homework to grade, worksheets to make, lessons to plan. Though school didn’t start until at 8:30, she would arrive two hours early to set up her classroom, prepare labs, and make copies. After classes, coaching or tutoring would keep Pringle on campus late; after grabbing dinner—“fast food, usually”—she would head home and work until midnight or one.
When I ask her about her day, Pringle fires off a list of responsibilities, duties, and activities for every hour, barely pausing to catch her breath. In the middle of explaining her daily life as a super-teacher, Pringle pauses and laughs: “Sorry. I can’t even begin to tell you just how much there is to do.”
And that’s not to mention the additional challenges that Katrina presents for aspiring educators.
Colleston A. Morgan, Jr. ’07 fell in love with New Orleans when he visited the city with the Phillip Brooks House Association on a 2006 intersession trip. He enjoyed the experience so much that he returned the next summer to lead the Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps, a program that provides tutoring for low-income students. But despite his previous work in the city, Morgan was struck by the daily grind of living and teaching in a city that was long on hope but short on basically everything else.
“You’re constantly reminded in small ways,” Morgan says. “You’ll call a number trying to reach an office or a parent and you won’t get an answer. It’s just an empty shell—no one lives there anymore.”
Hurricane Katrina also affected teaching in other ways: Morgan says that his school no longer has athletic facilities, leaving the track, dance, and flag teams, as well as the school band, to practice on a concrete sidewalk by the school. “They’re sort of things that become normal,” he says, with a hint of resignation. “Then when you step back and think about it, you realize it’s not normal.”
And while perhaps not the rule, Morgan’s experiences aren’t the exception either.
“During P.E. class, we have to walk 60 kids five blocks away, past tons of strange characters that we don’t want the kids to be exposed to,” says Kristen D. Lozada ’07, a math teacher at a charter school whose gym was flooded during Katrina. “Imagine a bunch of sixth graders, who aren’t used to walking straight—all in the New Orleans heat.”
But the daily inconveniences that continue to remind residents and visitors of Katrina are only the surface of much more endemic problems, problems that TFA educators say is their mission to attack.
Well before Katrina hit, the New Orleans public schools were considered among the worst in the country. When Pringle gave her students a diagnostic test at the beginning of the year, her tenth graders were reading on average at a fifth grade level. Unsurprisingly, many of those students never make it to their high school graduations, and far fewer still ever make it to college.
The characteristics of a more customary classroom experience—the type that most Harvard graduates were privileged to have—can’t be taken for granted. Corps members quickly realize that they cannot assume that all their students have basic resources like adequate housing or nutritious food.
“I couldn’t put myself in my students’ shoes,” Pringle admits. “I went to a suburban public high school, where everyone at that school had a relatively stable home life. When I first started, I noticed that my students would say, ‘Where do you stay?’ and not ‘Where do you live?’ They may have been forced out of where they feel their family is from, into a project or somewhere else, and so they just stay there, not live there.”
In these situations, corps members scramble to keep their kids focused and interested in academic subjects a world away from their own lives.
Morgan, who teaches a civics class, told me that he begins his unit on government by discussing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the agency whose response to Katrina was widely derided as inadequate and incompetent. While there is no shortage of white hot anger toward FEMA even three years after the hurricane came ashore, Morgan says that the trick is bringing students beyond these initial opinions and teaching them to back up their arguments with an understanding of the system.
Inspiring students to want to learn is an important tenant of TFA’s teaching philosophy. “When I was a student, you were just expected to learn things, because that was the way things were,” Pringle says. “For my kids, I just know they will learn so much more if they’re excited, if you do fun and interesting activities. It’s not that I expect less of them, it’s just that I teach differently.”
On the day she taught a class on the characteristics of living things, Pringle told her students she had brought mutated sewer life for them to examine. The graduated cylinder she presented, however, actually contained coffee, ginger ale, and raisins. But in the end, it was this unconventional lesson plan that piqued the interest of Pringle’s students so that she could teach them biology.
“They had a discussion about whether these life forms counted as living things or not,” Pringle says. “At the end of the discussion, I took out one of the ‘creatures’ and ate it. That definitely was an engaging lesson.”
SHORT BUT SWEET
Despite successes in the classroom, it is sometimes difficult to imagine how daily gains and small achievements can achieve TFA’s goal of fundamentally reshaping education, especially given that most TFA members leave the classroom after just two years. But in instance after instance, TFA alumni tell me that their stints were beneficial—both personally and for the students that they taught.
“It’s difficult to gauge the impact you have,” Pringle says. “I had a student last year who was very bright but quiet, and I wasn’t sure if I was getting through to him. But on the last day of school, he came up to me and said, ‘Ms. Pringle, I hope you keep teaching the way you teach.’ Instances like that can be reaffirming.”
Morgan, like Pringle, told me that he does not intend to return to the classroom after finishing his two year commitment—but neither consider their work in the program to be incomplete. “I think what is important is that you do a good job during the year you have these kids,” Morgan says. “If you can send the message why learning is important—why school matters—that can have a more long-term impact.”
Bhasin, for her part, decided to stay on in New Orleans after her TFA term, signing on to work for the Knowledge Is Power Program, the independent charter management company founded by two TFA graduates. She began as a founding teacher of a new school that would later become a model for other New Orleans charters. When Katrina hit in 2005, most of her school’s student population was forced to move to Houston, where KIPP was founded. Undeterred, Bhasin followed and set up shop in the new locale. From Houston, she found her way back to Boston.
And now, five years after she first signed on as a Teach For America corps member, Bhasin still finds herself involved in many of the TFA goals that attracted her to educational reform in the first place.
Everyone admits that it can be difficult to gauge the progress towards closing the achievement gap. But, Bhasin says. “What you can measure is the impact you have everyday in whatever capacity you choose to serve.”