Teach for America tries to end educational inequality

By Alissa Groeninger

In the United States, 13 million children live in poverty, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

By the time these children are in fourth grade, they are achieving academically at a level that is three grades behind their peers in schools with better funding. Only 50 percent of poverty-stricken kids will graduate from high school. Of those students who do graduate, they will have the reading and math comprehension levels of eighth-graders. Only 10 percent of them will graduate from college.

In 1991, an organization was formed to provide these low-income children with opportunities – Teach for America.

“Teach for America’s goal is to end the educational inequity,” said James Vogl, Teach for America recruitment director at UIUC, Purdue University and Bradley University.

He said the group strives to close the achievement gap between students in low-income areas and their counterparts in higher-income districts by placing recent college graduates as teachers in 28 low-income regions around the country. These teachers have a two-year contract with the organization.

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In 2008, the number of people who applied to Teach for America increased by 36 percent.

“People are seeing the Teach for America name as one that’s associated with being civic-minded,” Vogl said.

Working with the organization is a good step for recent college graduates who want to help change the world. They can work for Teach for America and remain in teaching or choose another profession to help the less fortunate, he added.

During college, Adam Parrott-Sheffer, University alumnus, knew he wanted to focus on education. He chose to major in history and earn his teaching certification through Teach for America.

“(I) really connected to (Teach for America’s) mission,” he said.

Seeing his students grow two or three grade levels in reading and writing made Parrott-Sheffer feel proud. He attributes students’ success to having teachers who are there every day and who believe they can succeed.

Alison Benefico, University alumna, said she joined Teach for America because she wanted to do something meaningful. “It hit me that that was something I could do after college to make a difference,” she said.

The experience was challenging and it provided different battles every day, Benefico said. However, the challenges were outweighed by the rewards of seeing her students succeed and having them respect her as a teacher.

“There were things that happened every day that made me happy to be there,” Benefico said.

After graduating last May, Megan Delaney began working for Teach for America in St. Louis, Mo. Delaney said she applied for Teach for America because she worked with children throughout college, mostly as a tutor. Her goal is to give students opportunities they would not otherwise receive.

“I just thought Teach for America would encompass everything I’d been doing for the last four years,” she said.

Nate Allen, University alumnus, said working in a low-income area is the most challenging task he has ever faced. Although difficult, the situation brings priceless rewards.

Allen applied to Teach for America to gain a firsthand look at the problems that inner-city schools face.

“I wanted to make a difference in those children who didn’t have the same educational opportunities I had growing up,” he said.

Parrott-Sheffer said someone considering Teach for America should explore classrooms in the Champaign area to see if they fit in. He said the decision is life-changing.

“(Teach for America teachers give) constant, relentless pursuit to have that knowledge to be better for their children,” he said.