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Teach for America helps at-risk schools, students make the grade

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 10, 2009 - Susan Reid, the jovial principal at Compton Drew Middle School just west of the St. Louis Science Center, can't say enough good about the instructors from Teach for America.

"They bring a great deal of energy to the classroom, lots of good ideas, and they invigorate other teachers," says Reid (right). She adds that Teach for America teachers "fall right in step" as volunteers for after-school programs, too, such as the Science Center class that meets one Saturday morning each month to serve Compton Drew students.

This enthusiasm is one unexpected reward that public and charter schools are realizing from their collaboration with Teach for America. This national program recruits college grads from a variety of academic majors to serve as teachers in urban and rural districts. The aim is to help eliminate educational inequality between these districts and wealthier districts.

More than 170 Teach for America teachers work in the St. Louis area, including 120 in the St. Louis Public Schools and the rest in Wellston, Normandy and charter schools. The teachers earn the same salaries as regular teachers, must agree to stay for two years and receive grants of about $5,000 that can be used to pay off student loans or pay for more college training.

If Reid and other supporters of Teach for America had one wish, it's that more teachers would remain in the program beyond their two-year commitments. Scott Baier, executive director of the local TFA program, understands, but he also points to about 70 TFA teachers who have remained in the program since it began here in 2002.

In any case, he says the program makes a difference by bringing in smart, highly motivated college grads to help students who otherwise might not be inspired to do well in school. His assessment is borne out by some studies, such as one by the Urban Institute, showing that high school students taught by TFA instructors outperformed their peers, including those taught by fully certified teachers.

Teach for America has plenty of believers outside the classroom, too. On Monday, two state Democratic lawmakers from St. Louis, state Sen. Jeff Smith and state Rep. Rachel Storch, celebrated Teach for America Week by teaching a class before heading to Jefferson City. They could afford to take the time because the General Assembly usually reconvenes late in the afternoon on Mondays.

Storch, who lectured at Compton Drew, enlivened the class with the story of how some home-schooled students in west St. Louis County got lawmakers to make the ice cream cone, supposedly invented in St. Louis during the 1904 World's Fair, the official state dessert. She also talked about weightier matters, such as the political fight in Jefferson City to protect more than 700,000 Missourians without health insurance and to fund other social services.

Storch says her goal wasn't just to inform kids about how laws are made and what's going on in state government but to inspire some of they to run for public office when they grow up.

Meanwhile, in a classroom at Soldan International Studies High School, Smith held up a container of bottled water, then engaged students in a lesson in economics. He showed them how numerous factors -- thirst after a workout in the school's gym; supply and demand; or even the potential contamination of St. Louis' otherwise excellent tap water -- can influence what each of them is charged and what they are willing to pay for the water.

Smith says he also was at Soldan on Monday as part of a campaign promise to visit every school in his district.

Teach for America members in the St. Louis area are typical in that a career in education was not on their radar screen in college. For example, Krista Clement, a Teach for America instructor assigned to Compton Drew, loved basketball in college and was leaning toward dentistry after graduation. But a friend on the West Coast told her about Teach for America, and she decided to apply following graduation from the University of Michigan. She also discovered that skills she picked up as a shooting guard on Michigan's basketball team came in handy at Compton Drew.

"I didn't grow up wanting to be a teacher," says Clement, "but I now know that I can make a difference and having those basketball skills have shown me how to work as a team with other teachers."

She says she now realizes that "you are going to have good days and bad days" in the classroom, but that the payoff comes when students "finally understand something" they've been struggling to master.

As for Storch's visit to Compton Drew, Clement says, "It's nice to have people from the community come in and see what we do and the kids see what opportunities are available to them."

Teach for America instructor Maggie Lorenz, who is from Louisville and teaches at Soldan, isn't sure she'll stay beyond the two years. But for her stint, she says she's committed to doing everything she can to reach her Soldan students.

"Lots of kids are just scared to take risks," said Lorenz. "But once they do, they realize how much they actually know. It's really amazing to me to see how that confidence factor makes a difference in how they perform in the classroom."

Baier, the Teach for America executive director here, says recruiting the right teachers to help build that confidence has been the key to the group's success. The quality of good recruits remains high. At last count, Baier notes, roughly 25,000 applicants competed for about 3,600 slots at Teach for America.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.