November 30, 2006

Cornellians Teach for America

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College seniors face tough decisions when it comes to their careers. They must often choose between lucrative jobs in the private sector and lower-paying civic service positions — tough choices for students who want to impact their communities but also earn some dough.

Teach for America, a nonprofit organization which pairs college grads with understaffed, under funded public schools around the country, provides a solution by bringing recent graduates into a needy education system while simultaneously providing them with a footwork for future careers.

TFA, the brainchild of Princeton alumnae Wendy Kopp, currently consists of about 4,400 corps members working in public school systems from Los Angeles to the Bronx and Hawaii to Houston. The organization is currently in its 16th year of recruitment and has trained and placed nearly 17,000 individuals who have signed on for the two-year commitment.

Since the Corp’s inception in 1981, Cornell University has consistently been a major recruitment pool. Five Cornellians were selected to join the first corps, and since 1990, 326 Cornell alumni have participated in the program, impacting 55,420 children nationwide.

“Cornell has always been one of our top drawers,” said Justin Meli ’01, director of the TFA New York Recruitment Team and corps member in Houston from 2003 to 2005.

He cited Cornell’s “high number of distinguished leaders who are both talented and civic-minded” as the driving force behind Cornell’s high participation rate.

After the first application deadline in October, 15 Cornellians have already been accepted into next year’s corps, making Cornell second only to Duke in acceptances so far. With three more application deadlines throughout the winter and spring, TFA expects to remain among Cornell’s top ten post-graduation employers.

Notable Cornell alumni who worked for Teach for America before launching their careers include Jonas Chartock ’97, president of the Charter School Policy Institute and Michelle Rhee ’92, current CEO of the New Teacher Project.

Teach for America, which recruits heavily at Cornell and 400 other college campuses throughout the year, faces stiff competition with other major employers, including banks, consulting firms and other non-profit organizations. Consequently, TFA has developed partnerships with businesses from Google to JPMorgan, as well as top graduate programs in nearly every field, to defer acceptances for two years to allow for participation in the program. These deferrals, which often come with financial incentives to encourage TFA participation, allow students to serve their communities without giving up other career goals.

With an acceptance rate of about 13 percent, TFA is a highly selective program. Applicants are chosen based on leadership and motivational qualities, capacities for organization and critical thinking, and ability to overcome challenges. The rigorous application process includes an essay and several recommendation letters, a phone interview and group interview in which candidates present a mock classroom lesson.

Naomi Skolnick ’07, who was recently accepted into the corps and will begin teaching in a New York City elementary school in May, thought the application process allowed recruiters to get to know the applicants. She said that the group interview was particularly important because candidates had to demonstrate how they worked group settings.

“As a corps member, you are not only a teacher, but a teacher within a school district and also part of TFA. It’s important to show how you handle yourself,” she said.

For some TFA corps members, classroom experience has shaped and inspired future career paths. Danny Swersky ’05, a second-year corps member who teaches a sixth grade class in the Bronx, plans to attend law school or the NYC Leadership Academy which trains principals.

“I’ve always been interested in policy of education, but TFA gave me some real background training and an experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he said.

Corps members are placed in classrooms after just six weeks of formal training, but Cornellians say that their experiences on the Hill, both academically and socially, prepared them to meet everyday classroom challenges.

Learning to budget time in a tight schedule has helped Meg Lembo ’06 to cope with the many pressures of her New York City kindergarten class.

“The amount of work that I was required to put into my classes, especially during the semesters when I had to load up on credits, was invaluable,” she said.

Swersky said that although he didn’t pick up any specific classroom management skills in college, he learned to be a responsible person.

“The overall experience of college made me mature enough to handle this situation,” he said.

Meli pointed to the economic and ethnic diversity he experienced for the first time at Cornell as important preparation for teaching a diverse group of sixth graders in Houston. He also cited Cornell’s unique course offerings, including child psychology classes and the Center for the Study of Inequality as invaluable resources for corps members.

TFA members come up with their own lesson plans using a variety of resources ranging from school curricula to TFA sample lessons and their own past experiences.

“It’s really hard to come up with original lessons and to get the kids really excited everyday,” said Swersky. TFA offers corps members an array of academic and emotional support to deal with the trials of working in underprivileged classrooms.

Skolnick is eager to get into the classroom and share with students the same excitement and motivation to learn that she received from teachers during her public school experience.

“I want to show these kids that they can achieve anything they set their hearts on,” she said.

For both Lembo and Swersky, the most rewarding part of the job is watching students make social and academic strides despite the inadequate school resources and low expectations. Swersky said that one of the most rewarding parts of his experience has been “having students come back from last year to tell me how well they are doing in middle school.”

Lembo agreed, stating that the excitement she feels when she sees how much progress her students have made in only three months motivates her to go to work even after working on lesson plans until 3 a.m.

While the benefits to participation in TFA are huge, the challenges that corps members face are often more than they bargained for.

“The day to day struggle with low expectations in a poor environment, plus an administration that doesn’t want to challenge kids but just tries to cover up mistakes” has been a major obstacle for Swersky.

Lembo cited her lack of experience as compared with other teachers in her district as a challenge she constantly faces. “It is definitely tough to teach without a background in education and without extensive student teaching experience,” she said.

So how does life in a classroom shape up compared to life at college?

“You work really hard at Cornell, but it wasn’t as hard as working for Teach for America,” said Meli. “As a member of the TFA corps, I really learned how to give it my all.”