Education 'Peace Corps' Expanding Area Presence

"I press on my students even more: 'You can achieve. You may have to do it in a different way, but you can achieve,' " says Teach for America participant Dawn Jacobs, a special education teacher at Langdon Elementary School in Northeast Washington. She says leaning on her network of fellow special ed teachers in Teach for America has helped her. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2007

Every school day morning, teacher Dawn Jacobs repeats a spirited chant with her young special education students at Langdon Elementary School in Northeast Washington: "We are moving and improving!"

Jacobs, 23, is a participant in Teach for America, a program that places recent college graduates in struggling low-income schools for two-year teaching commitments. Now the nonprofit organization is getting ready to put more teachers like Jacobs in D.C. classrooms, and, for the first time, in Prince George's County.

Teach for America, which has operated in the District since 1992, has 160 teachers working there this year. The number will grow to 250 in the fall, with 25 assigned to Prince George's schools. If the school systems agree, there could be 500 such teachers in the District and Prince George's by 2011, making Teach for America by far their largest supplier of new teachers. The expansion reflects what organization officials see as a new commitment to reform by the administration of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Prince George's officials.

"Our mission is to close the achievement gap," said Amy Black, executive director of Teach for America-Metro D.C. "There is no reason an 8-year-old in D.C. should be two to three grade levels behind his counterpart in Fairfax County."

Black described the effort as "a domestic Peace Corps for education."

"The quality of education afforded to low-income kids is one of the biggest problems facing the country," she said. "It's our nation's greatest civil rights issue."

Teach for America was founded in 1990 by a Princeton University senior named Wendy Kopp, who posed the concept in her undergraduate thesis. Kopp raised $2.5 million in start-up funding, and in its first year, the organization sent 500 young teachers to low-income areas across the country. Since then, 12,000 people have participated. The District has 750 alumni of the program, including 18 local school principals, Black said.

The participants, who do not have to be education majors, are recruited from 500 college campuses. "We get the top talent," she said. "We look for leadership on campus, perseverance in the face of challenges." Last year, nearly 19,000 people applied for the program. The corps has about 4,400 teachers in 25 low-income communities.

The school systems that hire the teachers pay their salaries, but Teach for America provides extensive training and year-round support. Two-thirds of the participants end up in education as a career, Black said.

Dan Gohl, principal of McKinley Technology High School in Northeast Washington, has had six Teach for America teachers during the past three years. "What they've brought to the table is a commitment to learning, combined with recent content expertise," he said. "It has been an extremely positive experience."

School officials in Prince George's said they are excited about the organization's launch there. "These are people who come in on a mission, so to speak," said schools spokesman John White, "and we can certainly use their help in teacher recruitment, because we are looking for the best teachers to work in our schools of greatest need."

One Teach for America alumna, Aurora Lora, said the experience did as much for her as it did for the fourth-graders she taught for two years in Houston, from 2000 to 2002.

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