Who’s Waiting for Superman?
By Martha Hunter Shepard ’66
The message of the 2010 documentary film “Waiting for Superman” is that, unable to “fix” America’s troubled public education system, it seems we’ve been waiting for Superman to fly in and do the job. Trouble is, Superman isn’t real. The many Rhodes alums who’ve chosen education for a career, including the 100 or so Rhodes alums affiliated with Teach for America (TFA) know that. And they’re not waiting.
Many Rhodes/TFA alums are currently teaching, and several of the class of 2011 (out of 48,000 applicants nationwide) have been accepted for this fall’s crop. Quite a few alums have chosen to stay with TFA as administrators. To say they have a passion for education would be a vast understatement. They’re excellent at what they do. And they are making a difference.
Teach for America, now 21 years old, was the brainchild of Princeton senior Wendy Kopp, who in a 1989 thesis outlined a national program to “eliminate education inequity.” It would consist of a teacher corps of the best and brightest young college graduates who would attend intense summer training institutes, then branch out to work in the country’s schools of greatest need. They would commit to two years of service.
Wasting no time, she got the program going in 1990 with 500 corps members (there are more than 8,000 today). In 2007, she went global, partnering with the UK’s Teach First program to create Teach for All, an international version of TFA. That year, Rhodes bestowed on Kopp an honorary doctor of humanities degree.
It’s been a slow process and not without criticism, but TFA has helped change the culture of how we teach and learn in our schools. It has also been a first choice for postgraduate employment—and a lasting commitment—for some top Rhodes alums.
Enter RhodesKelly Garrett ’92 was the first Rhodes alum to sign on with TFA after graduation. So many have followed that Rhodes has been recognized as a top contributor of corps members among small colleges and universities, including Middlebury, Amherst, Smith and Wellesley.
What’s more, the vast majority of Rhodes/TFA alums, after their two-year stint, have stayed on as administrators in TFA, or parlayed skills honed in TFA classrooms into other fields of service in public education—overwhelmingly in low-income communities that need them most. Grace Williams ’03, for example, an instructional coach at Memphis’ KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Diamond Academy, is in line to start a new one, KIPP Collegiate Elementary School, in Memphis in fall 2012.
The Rhodes-TFA connection has continued to blossom, bearing fruit for the entire community. In 2006, thanks to a personal invitation to Wendy Kopp from President Bill Troutt, Rhodes trustee chair Bill Michaelcheck ’69 and Memphian Barbara Hyde and the Hyde Family Foundation, TFA established Memphis as a region it wished to serve. For four years Rhodes was the site of one of its eight summer training institutes.
The commitmentSuperman may work for free, but TFA members are compensated. They’re salaried by the school districts they serve, with starting annual paychecks averaging between $30,000-$50,000 depending on the area of the country in which they live. What’s more, at the end of each year they receive a $5,000 bonus from AmeriCorps, which they can apply toward repaying student loans.
They earn every penny. At Becky Saleska Wolfe’s ’06 charter school in Inglewood, CA, a typical day begins upon arising at 5:30 a.m. It includes preparing lesson plans, grading, stopping at Walgreen’s to buy supplies for a lab (out of her own pocket), teaching, tutoring, lunch duty, counseling, mentoring, cleaning. “Technically, the day ends at 3:15—but I usually stay until 5 so that I can tutor students and/or grade. Notice: I don’t see a single adult the entire day,” she says. Wolfe has taught at three schools in the Los Angeles area since 2006, but she says this year’s her last. While she plans to pursue a graduate degree in environmental health science, she says she’s committed to remaining in the field of education.
No matter where or how long they serve, Rhodes alums bring a certain expertise to the job. They arrive at TFA ready to work, steeped in knowledge gained outside as well as inside the classroom. As undergraduates, most were involved in community service programs, tutoring in nearby schools, building playgrounds and houses during alternative spring breaks in other countries, answering calls at the Memphis Crisis Center. Academics come into play as well.
Katie Franklin ’02, now an assistant principal at Stuart- Hobson Middle School in Washington, DC, majored in Political Science and tutored at Snowden Elementary School. She says she found a common thread running throughout all her classes at Rhodes—“the intriguing pitfalls of human societies and the constant fight for justice by oppressed groups throughout history.” By her senior year, she knew she wanted to teach.
Noticing a TFA flier in Buckman one day, she applied online. “Since TFA gave me that first opportunity to work with students, it has undoubtedly changed my whole life and shaped my future,” she says. Stuart-Hobson, which offers a solid core academic program, has enjoyed visits by President Obama and his entire family, as well as retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Meredith Guillot ’05, a program designer at Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia, credits her work with the Memphis Crisis Center and the teaching of Psychology Professor Marsha Walton for “getting me to think about and really see the differences between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in America.” Guillot says Rhodes TFA alums inspired her as well. “All these factors influenced me to submit an application. I believed, maybe somewhat naïvely, that TFA might be my way to go about changing the world. Plus, I loved working with children!”
Guillot’s TFA service was in a town of 5,000 in eastern North Carolina. There, she realized “how policy decisions in education, housing and medical care affected my students.” Compelled to effect policy “through the lens of what’s best for children, not what’s best or easiest for grownups,” she enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. Soon realizing how much she missed being with students in a school environment, she applied to Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that turns around previously failing schools, at a highly successful rate.
President Obama cited Mastery at last year’s National Urban League Centennial Conference. Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network bestowed $1 million of viewer donations to Mastery, where Guillot now “designs programs and provides student and teacher support for students with low incidence disabilities such as autism and intellectual disabilities.”
Guillot has remained in the education field, she says, “because I believe there is no other choice. I’ve seen how desperate the situation is. Our CEO at Mastery is constantly referring to the fact that ‘the house is on fire’—there is no time to waste.”