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Sally M. Love: What Teach for America could bring -- and already has brought -- to WV

By By Sally M. Love

Are you aware that West Virginia has over 700 teacher vacancies?

As a concerned citizen, a former teacher and a member of Gov. Jim Justice’s Public Education Transition Team, I propose the state Board of Education avail itself of a program called Teach for America.

Teach for America is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1989 by Wendy Kopp who, as a student at Princeton University, saw the inequities in public education and wanted to try to right existing wrongs.

Through her senior thesis, she was able to convince leaders throughout our country to support her plan and to fund this program. It was her idea that educational excellence and equity could be addressed by sending well-educated, dedicated college graduates to urban and rural communities throughout the United States.

Teach for America requires its participants make a two-year commitment. It is a program designed to appeal to young people who want to make a positive difference in the lives of disadvantaged students and who can be positive role models for students who have not had more affluent, encouraging environments.

Participants can provide inspiration to those who need it most and can stimulate interest in education and learning. These educators are from a wide variety of locations and backgrounds and can provide diversity to those living in homogeneous environments as well as offer moral, emotional and academic support.

Teach for America is a life-changing experience for many of its participants: not only for students but also its teachers. For example, Alec Ross, a New York Times best-selling author of “The Industries of the Future,” graduated from Charleston’s George Washington High School in 1990 before going to Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.

After obtaining his degree in history from Northwestern, Ross volunteered for Teach for America. He was placed in Baltimore, where he taught in an inner-city school for two years. While there, he developed an understanding and a compassion for children who came from dysfunctional families. He realized that it took more than just a desire to excel to succeed. He also became acutely aware of the differences between rural and urban poverty.

Another Kanawha County resident whose life was changed by TFA is Stephanie Haden. Initially, she aspired to be a lawyer. After teaching for two years in an inner-city school in Miami with Teach for America, Haden changed her career plans and is now a math teacher at Piedmont Elementary. At Piedmont, she has successfully raised the math scores of her school to achieve county recognition.

Last year as coordinator for Piedmont Elementary’s Math Field Day competition, Haden’s leadership and teaching skills led to Piedmont placing first in Kanawha County. In the past six years, students at Piedmont have taken one of the top three spots. Last year, they won first place.

This competition is for all public and private schools in Kanawha County. This is quite an accomplishment for a school whose students are some of the most transient in the county, and it attests to the dedication of its former TFA teacher.

Students who are in the classrooms of Teach for America instructors frequently are inspired. One such student was Teaira Lewis from Baltimore, who benefited from the mentorship of Felicity Messner Ross, who is Alec Ross’ wife. She taught math for TFA and is now an instructor at John Hopkins University.

As a former student of Ross, Lewis credits her teaching as being instrumental in turning her life from one of being trapped by poverty to one of productivity. Now, Lewis is a therapist at Coldstream Middle School in Baltimore and a counselor for previously incarcerated students. She lives in York, Pennsylvania, with her two children and her husband, a basketball player for the Harlem Wizards.

Twenty years ago, she escaped a background plagued by a drug-addicted mother to knowing that life held multiple opportunities if only she could study hard and pursue her education. This is the result of having the benefit of a Teach for America instructor who helped change a student’s life.

Mrs. Haden relates that many of the students who attend Piedmont return on their days off for friendship and support. This is not only beneficial to them but also to their parents as well who are appreciative of the nurturing and the guidance provided by teachers who care.

In 2016, the state of West Virginia Board of Education approved programs for Teach for America to be implemented in six counties. Among those counties are McDowell, Kanawha and Nicholas. I would like to encourage our state Board of Education to make this program available to all 55 counties. It could supply professionals to shore up instructional shortages in math, science and foreign languages.

Because these instructors are here for a limited period, this should not be thought of as a threat to displacing current teachers or those entering the workforce. Rather, this should be viewed as a beneficial program filling a need that can create opportunities for students in counties that most need talented and diverse educators, some of whom will remain here.

With a declining state population, we should welcome them. Let’s encourage our governor, our legislators and boards of education to implement Teach for America throughout West Virginia. It will be a winning solution for all West Virginians.

Sally M. Love lives in Charleston.

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