Chavez teacher uses Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship as bridge to change

(James Buck/The Washington Post) - Biology teacher Alexandra Fuentes isone of 25 area educators awarded the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship.

A teacher at Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School on Capitol Hill is taking extra steps to give her students and fellow teachers a voice.

This month, Alexandra Fuentes, 26, who is in her third year teaching 10th grade biology at Chavez, was one of 25 Washington area teachers awarded the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship, an 18-month program for teachers interested in bringing their experience to discussions about education policy. The program has branches in Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Memphis. It expanded to the District in January.

Candice Crawford, executive director of the District’s Teach Plus branch, said Fuentes, who lives on Capitol Hill, was selected for her innovative methods and passion for extending opportunities to students in low-performing schools.

“Our end goal is for our teachers to have a policy impact in their area so that they can bring the voice of teachers to policymakers,” Crawford said. “Alexandra stood out from the beginning as someone who can be a strong advocate for improving the teaching profession.”

Her trick to making the lesson plans stick? Trust. For students to see themselves as leaders, Fuentes said, teachers must trust them with opportunities to apply what they’ve learned.

“It’s not as simple as connecting content to what is relevant,” she said. “It’s about putting students in positions of power where they can interact with scientists and policymakers.”

Minority students and those who have grown up in poor, neglected neighborhoods pose an extra challenge, Fuentes said, in that they don’t always think their voice matters.

“They’re an untapped resource of talent,” she said. “We just have to get them to rethink their potential.”

Chavez High is 86 percent black and 13 percent Latino. More than two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

To build confidence among her students, Fuentes creates opportunities for them to explore what they’ve learned outside the classroom. In 2010, with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, Fuentes and five of her students attended an AIDS conference in Atlanta where they shared ideas about how to break down barriers of discussing HIV.

“She’s precise,” said Jasmine Stanfield, 15, a 10th-grader at Chavez. “For me, science was just a lot of multiple choice. Now, we talk about how it affects our lives. When it comes to AIDS, you know, people really don’t talk about it, but Miss Fuentes encourages us to.”

Fuentes was born in Puerto Rico. Her family moved to Youngstown, Ohio, when she was a baby. Today, she’s one of eight teachers in her family, including two aunts, three cousins and her mother.

For Fuentes, the desire to teach didn’t strike until she attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she was studying to become a scientist and volunteering at a preschool and low-performing high school.

“The preschoolers expressed this unbelievable excitement and eagerness to learn, but the high-schoolers had lost all semblances of interest,” she said. “In a way, it was frightening.”

Fuentes changed career paths and applied to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. She also received the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Fellowship, a highly selective five-year program that works to support entry-level teachers and improve retention rates. Both Knowles and Teach Plus estimate that 50 percent of new teachers leave the field within five years.

When it came time to job hunt in 2009, Fuentes said, the District was her first choice for its “energy around education policy” and improving schools.

But she doesn’t intend on leaving the classroom for the Hill anytime soon; instead, she’ll use the Teach Plus fellowship as a bridge between the two worlds.

“This fellowship gives teachers a seat at the table,” she said. “We have a unique perspective on just how the policies affect the classroom, the school, the conversation. Our voice is essential.”

For information on Teach Plus D.C. fellows, visit www.teachplus.org.

 
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