After I graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2005, I spent two years teaching a group of 150 seventh and eighth grade students in North Philadelphia. Most of their teachers were either fellow Teach For America corps members or part of the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program. On my first day, the students completed a project in which they shared their life goals. It was clear that they were intelligent, creative and full of dreams, like any group of children. They planned to go to college to become doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs.
However, it quickly became apparent that most of the students weren’t on a life trajectory that would allow them to realize those dreams. They struggled to read Dr. Seuss books and couldn’t multiply and divide without a calculator — skills that should be mastered in early elementary school. Without major intervention, most of my students would not graduate from high school.
My students’ story is all too common among children growing up in low-income communities. When kids growing up in poverty enter kindergarten, they are already academically behind their wealthier peers. This gap in educational opportunity only widens over time. By the fourth grade, they are three grade levels behind, and half of them won’t graduate from high school. Only one in 10 will attend college and for those lacking a college degree, many doors are shut firmly.
As a senior, I had a lot of ideas about how I might spend my first years out of college. Like most students at the College, I had engaged deeply in service and I wanted a job with purpose. I met with a recruiter and started to develop a conviction that I must do something about this injustice. I had enjoyed a first-class college education while millions of children across our country were denied access to something similar simply because of their zip code.
My students went on to make extraordinary academic gains throughout middle school. Over the course of two years, three times as many students passed their standardized tests and their reading and math levels went up three to four grade levels on average. Instead of struggling through Dr. Seuss books and basic math, they were gliding through chapter books and algebra. Over 50 of our students applied and were admitted to competitive magnet high schools. Only two had achieved this feat in the previous year.
As my students entered high school, I went on to join Teach For America’s staff, working to increase the number of leaders committed to educational equity. Last June, I traveled to Philadelphia to watch many of my students graduate from high school. It was emotional to join my students and their families to celebrate this milestone and to know the role I played in realizing it. As I left the graduation, I reflected on my own decision to join Teach For America so many years ago. People told me working as a corps member would be difficult, at times nearly impossible. They were right. My fellow teachers and I fought hard to change the life trajectories of our students and it was exhausting, emotional and, at times, very frustrating. Every second was worth it, because our students now have a chance to attend college and realize their dreams.
As you consider how you’ll spend your energy in college or after graduation, ask yourself what kind of impact you wish to have. If you share my outrage about our public schools continuing to deny millions of American children a chance to pursue their dreams, I urge you to get involved in this issue. Tutor kids in local schools that serve low-income populations. Apply for the Breakthrough Collaborative program this summer. Join Teach For America and commit to impacting the lives of your own students somewhere in our country.