Holy Cross Grad Reflects on Joy from Teach for America
Published: Friday, February 22, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2013 16:02
Exactly four years ago, I was heading back to Holy Cross for my senior spring semester and I had just submitted my Teach for America application. I was busy making plans for senior week and graduation activities, wondering whether I wanted to be a pediatrician or a psychologist. Meanwhile, I had no idea that handing in that application was a decision that would change my life forever.
Four years later, at Tulsa Lighthouse Charter School in Oklahoma, my daily activities include lesson planning, analyzing data, working with parents and cheering on my students at their many extracurricular events. As I sit here watching my third grade ‘Crusaders’ (our classrooms are named after our alma mater) take their major winter exam, I am anxiously waiting to see how much they have grown since their initial assessment in the fall. Most of my scholars came to me on a kindergarten- and first-grade level in reading and math and we have a long way to go before they are on grade level. It is frustrating to think that, if my scholars had a strong early childhood education, they may not be years behind where they need to be.
As a Teach for America corps member in the fall of 2009, I began teaching at the Community Action Project, in a Head Start classroom full of three and four-year olds. After my first day of teaching, I knew that the education sector was where I belonged. Standing in front of twenty ‘Super Scholars’ every day made me a believer in the power of education, but it also gave me a first-hand look at educational inequity. All of my students came from households living in poverty and ranged in ethnicity from African American to Hispanic to Hmong. Even at three years old, their opportunities were limited because of the neighborhood they called home.
For many children who share the background of my students, the additional challenges of poverty mean that they start their academic careers already behind their peers in wealthier
communities. These economic disparities often cut across racial lines; half of the disparity in educational outcomes between White and African-American children in 12th grade is present before Kindergarten starts. If allowed to persist, that disparity later develops into lower high school graduation rates, lower rates of college attainment, and limited career and life options. Research shows that children who attend high-quality pre-K programs, however, are more likely to achieve academically, earn more, and avoid involvement with the criminal justice system later in life. With the right support from families, community members, and dedicated educators, we can give kids in low-income communities the chance to start on equal footing and fight educational inequity before it takes hold.
I remember my first week in the classroom, the teacher next door to me said, “Don’t even try to teach these kids to read. They can’t do it. And don’t push them too hard; they deal with too much at home. You will only make yourself crazy.” I was infuriated! Lowering expectations for children that were already behind their wealthier peers was only going to keep them behind and widen the opportunity gap. I was reading at three years old; why shouldn’t my students be given the same chance to grow and excel? And excel they did.
By the end of the year, my students had grown academically, emotionally, and socially. They were reading on a first grade level and they mastered classroom routines and norms. It was incredibly rewarding to see four- and five-year old students proud of themselves and excited about coming to school every day or to see one of my students turn to another and say, “You seem really upset right now, would you like a hug or a high five?” In my two years of teaching preschool, 95% of my students were ready for Kindergarten at the end of the year and 8 students actually tested out of Kindergarten and moved onto first grade. So for all the people that say ‘Those kids can’t learn,’ ‘Those kids don’t care about school,’ or ‘Those kids will never make it;’ my scholars are proving them wrong every day.
Seeing how far behind my third grade students are right now, makes me want to rewind the clock and put them all in excellent early childhood classrooms. Knowing the difference a strong educational foundation can make, I can’t walk away from the fight for educational equity. Like many of my fellow Teach For America corps members and alums, mine will be a lifelong commitment to educational excellence and leveling the playing field for all students. I now have a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership, and I am currently in the planning process to open my own elementary school that will continue the work of excellent early childhood programs in Tulsa.
It is more urgent than ever to give all children, regardless of their family income or the color of their skin, the kind of education that will allow them to reach their full potential. As you think about what role you want to play after graduation, I hope you will consider joining me in these efforts. As John Legend says, “We’re the generation; we can’t afford to wait. The future started yesterday, and we’re already late.”
Chelsea Vanacore is a 2009 Teach For America alumna, teaching in Tulsa, Oklahoma and a 2009 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross.