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Bridging the Achievement Gap

USC College alumni shine in Teach for America

Bridging the Achievement Gap

Even over a sometimes-shaky cellular connection from Boston to Los Angeles, the smile in Cecilia Mo’s voice was crystal clear. Mo (B.A., mathematics and interdisciplinary studies, ’02) was talking about her two years teaching math at Jefferson High, not far from USC.

“Some people wonder whether you can really reach kids. I met a sophomore named Vanessa when I started. She was one of those kids who wanted help from anyone that could give it. It really worked out well for me, because I had a lot of help to give and, at least initially, no one wanted it.” Mo developed a close relationship with the student, a member of Jefferson’s academic decathlon team, which Mo coached. The team was recognized as most improved in its division, and moved up nine places in a field of 59 the following year.

Mo came to Jefferson through Teach for America (TFA). This nonprofit national service organization recruits America’s top college graduates, regardless of major, to spend two years teaching public school in urban and rural low-income communities. These recruits are hired and paid by school districts — but receive an additional award of almost $10,000 for loan repayment or future educational costs. In fall 2005 more than 2,100 Teach for America corps members began teaching in schools across the nation.

TFA aims to erase the achievement gap, a troubling disparity in academic performance. Well-off students statistically outperform their disadvantaged peers, and white students perform better overall than black and Latino students. The organization describes the gap as this generation’s civil rights issue, and corps members are expected to lead their students to significant academic gains.

A growing number of USC students are applying for Teach for America. This year the program fielded its largest-ever crop of Trojan applicants, 149 students, representing a 40 percent increase over the previous year. Students with majors within USC College accounted for almost three-quarters of this number.

The TFA mission fits in with the Trojan tradition of community service. Danielle Duran (B.A., psychology, ’04) sees a clear connection. She is finishing her second year teaching seventh grade at Los Angeles Academy Middle School. During her time at USC as a member of the Helenes, the service organization established a Junior Helenes mentorship program for local high school students.

“With service learning as part of the university’s culture, it becomes a part of you,” she said. “There’s a voice in the back of your head, ‘Who are you helping? What are you doing to make somebody else's life better?’ I think part of going to USC is wanting to make the world a better place.”

A 2004 study showed that students of corps members score higher on average in math than those taught by non-TFA teachers. In a 2005 survey, 75 percent of principals who’d worked with TFA participants said they regarded corps members as more effective than other beginning teachers, and 63 percent rated TFA teachers above the overall teaching faculty.

Admission to TFA is highly selective, with a typical acceptance rate of 17 percent. Trojan applicants have proven to be a cut above — 28 percent of this year’s USC applicants were successful.

One College senior selected for TFA this fall is Lia Evans (B.A., sociology and Spanish, ’06). At USC Evans has dedicated time to tutoring local schoolchildren, helping lead the Joint Educational Project’s USC Readers program at Norwood Elementary. For her, the two-year TFA commitment is a natural continuation of that work and a real-world application of what she’s learned at the College.

“My coursework highlighted the social injustices in Southern California, the U.S.and around the world,” Evans explained. “With service learning, actually getting into the neighborhood, you’re making those issues your own. That's why I looked for a job that aligns with my passion for trying to make an impact in the lives of people who are often marginalized in our society.”

More than 60 percent of the program’s participants continue careers in education in some capacity after TFA. But TFA’s vision is broader — the idea is to propagate a generation of doctors and lawyers, community advocates and entrepreneurs, who are dedicated to educational equity.

Mo sees her TFA experience as putting a face to the issues in her studies and future career in the policy world. “I always felt like the scholars and the practitioners who did the best work really understood the needs of the community,” she said, “so I wanted that experience prior to further academic training.” She is finishing her master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and will pursue a doctoral degree at Stanford starting this fall.

She was able to defer her acceptance to graduate school to be a corps member because Harvard is one of about 70 universities, including USC, that partners with TFA to offer admission deferrals, scholarships, tuition assistance or fee waivers to corps members interested in graduate or professional training. “Universities partner with us because they really value what we do,” said Pearl Esau, director of TFA’s Southern California recruitment efforts. “They know our corps members come out with tremendous leadership skills and have gained firsthand insight into the factors impacting low-income communities. That's something they're looking for.”

Esau was a corps member before joining TFA’s staff, and describes her two years in the classroom as life-changing. College alumni in TFA echo this sentiment.

“It's been one of the most intense and amazing experiences that I could ever imagine,” said Duran. “I love my students, and I'm very proud of all their accomplishments, just as proud as they are.”

While the path of a new teacher is certainly not easy, the fulfillment found in the teacher-student relationship is another common theme for many College alumni corps members. Jeana Marinelli (B.A., health and humanity, ’05), finishing her first year teaching science in a Harlem middle school, said, “I still have close connections with my USC professors and advisers. These meaningful relationships encouraged me to seek to build the same with my students. At the end of the day, when I’ve helped catalyze a scientific understanding for my students, I know that these are going to be an incredible two years.”

Or, as another example, there’s the rest of the story of Mo and her student Vanessa: “After I left for Harvard, we kept in touch. She was going to be the first member of her family to attend college, and it hadn't crossed her mind that she could go somewhere like Harvard. She was a really bright girl, so I just kept pushing her, ‘You don't have to think just of community college. You can think bigger.’

“So she decided to apply to Harvard — and she’s here! Harvard gave her a full scholarship. It was through her own hard work, but just knowing I helped put that idea in her head, I was able to write that four-page letter of recommendation, it's definitely a blessing when you know something good happened, and you made a difference.”