February 11, 2004

Cornell Grads Teach America

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On her first day as a Teach for America corps member in a troubled inner-city New Orleans high school, 22-year-old Valerie Horvilleaur ’03 smiled at her English students and then laid down the law. She demanded respect — “100 percent respect.”

After revising his lesson plan about 15 times, 24-year-old Kwame Griffith ’02 walked into his classroom in a suit and tie and became the only male teacher at Isaac’s Elementary school in Houston, Texas. He demanded academic excellence and would accept nothing less.

These two remarkably driven and passionate Cornell graduates are devoting two years of their twenties to Teach for America (TFA) to help eliminate educational inequality in the United States.

Horvilleaur and Griffith both looked at TFA as a personal challenge and as a way to make a difference in the world.

Doing Something Different

“I was ready to do investment banking and law school, but I wanted to do something radically different, something challenging and fulfilling,” said Horvilleaur, a government and French major, who turned down a job offer at an investment banking firm in New York City in favor of teaching.

One day Griffith, who majored in human development at Cornell, would like to get his doctorate in clinical psychology, but for now being a teacher is his first priority.

“I’m a mom, a dad, a priest, a pastor, a social worker — as a teacher I’ve worn just about every hat possible,” Griffith said. “You have to achieve goals of academic excellence. You have to do everything, being a good teacher isn’t enough. It has to be excellence at all times.”

After being accepted to TFA, Griffith and Horvilleaur attended a five-week summer training institute. Corps members chose a few possible placements, and TFA does their best to match up members with district and state requirements.

“You walk in as a college grad and you walk out as well prepared as any teacher could be, before they get into the classroom,” Horvilleaur said of the institute. “You live and breathe teaching. I think I slept less during institute than I did at Cornell.”

During the institute, corps members participate in classes and workshops and practice teaching to get ready to teach in the most troubled schools in America.

But for Griffith and Horvilleaur, walking into a teaching environment that might intimidate even the most courageous and experienced teacher was just another challenge to be taken in stride.

Miss H — Horvilleaur’s name to her students at John McDonogh Senior High School — has a “Scholarly Top Ten List” and awards students “Scholar Dollars” to inspire respect and achievement. Number one on her list is respect, “100 percent respect,” to be exact. “I don’t want 99.9 percent,” she said.

The list also includes keeping the room clean, limiting bathroom visits and leaping toward LEAP — an English exam that all students in Louisiana must pass to graduate.

Miss H’s biggest challenge is improving academic performance. At the beginning of the year, the average reading level of her sophomore English class — including older students who were held back — was 6th grade. About one-fourth of her students were reading on the second and third grade level.

“No one can sit there and say that’s right, that’s fair,” Horvilleaur said. “These kids are begging to learn, begging to be taught. I have so many smart kids in my classes. They have just gone unnoticed, untapped. There are some who are so smart, but just so far behind.”

Griffith encountered similar problems in his fourth grade classroom last year.

“In fourth grade, you’re supposed to build on the foundation that would have been created in the lower grades,” Griffith said. “When that doesn’t take place, you have to go back and meet them where they are and then try to build them up to where they should be.”

In order to “relentlessly pursue academic achievement,” Griffith devotes himself wholeheartedly to his kids. He plans to attend their eighth grade, high school and college graduations, no matter how far away they venture.

“They all have my home phone number and they’re allowed to call me until 10:30 p.m.,” Griffith said. The deadline isn’t for himself, but rather because after 10:30, he wants them in bed.

Griffith gets three or four calls a night from kids asking for anything from homework help to advice on personal problems. Although he tries to help with personal problems, academics is always his top priority.

For both teachers, the goal is academic excellence and the best part of the job is the students.

Students are what keeps Horvilleaur going