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Q and A with Aaliyah El-Amin

by Mark Peres

September 6,2007

What is Teach For America?

Teach For America is a national movement of the country’s most promising future leaders who commit to teach for at least two years in public schools in some of our nation’s lowest-income neighborhoods. Corps members are recruited from colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and are placed in public schools to help move forward students who are often three grade-levels behind. We work to ensure that each and every child receives the same educational opportunities and that students receive the same quality education across the country. Our vision is that one day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

Why do you call it a movement?

Our corps members and alumni are a leadership force and are united by one mission. Since Teach For America began in 1990, we have placed more than 17,000 teachers and have reached nearly 3 million students nationally. We have become the nation’s largest provider of teachers in low-income communities, and we have been recognized for building a pipeline of leaders committed to educational equity and excellence. Corps members build awareness about the educational gap that persists along economic and racial lines, work to change the lives of students and, in the process, change their own lives. Many stay in education committed to addressing the achievement gap and making a sustained difference in the world.

Why do we have an achievement gap?

There are many reasons. Inadequate housing, healthcare, and preschool opportunities put added pressure on schools in low-income communities that generally don’t have the systems, capacity, and resources to compensate. These schools need to do more given the additional challenges their students face, but they often have less resources than schools in wealthier areas. To overcome these underlying challenges in the short term, we need as many teachers as possible who are willing to go above and beyond the constraints of the system and do whatever it takes to ensure that their students excel. We also need to build the capacity in the system to compensate for the broader forces at work. Our corps members address these issues by directly impacting lives in the classroom, and our alumni take on the underlying challenges as they enter other sectors like medicine, law and government.

What role does the personal responsibility of students play in the achievement gap?

Students play a definite role in their academic success, but as a nation we’re responsible for helping to close the achievement gap. Each year, a Gallup poll asks the general public why we have low educational outcomes in low-income communities. Out of 20 options, the public answers that the top factors are lack of student motivation, lack of parental involvement, and home-life issues. In answer to the same question with the same 20 options, our corps members respond at the end of their two-year teaching commitments that the top factors are teacher quality, school leadership, and expectations of students.

How do we close the gap?

We close the achievement gap by improving teacher quality in every classroom, improving school leadership and setting high expectations for students. Teach For America has the potential to be a silver bullet. There is no easy answer to a problem as large as the achievement gap, but people serve as the catalyst to all solutions and Teach For America has the leaders who can do that. We are one of the greatest sources of talent to the education arena today.

What kind of impact are you having in Charlotte?

We are making a tremendous difference in Charlotte. CMS is a large district with diverse needs. CMS educates more than 110,000 students in 140 schools. Our teachers only work in a subset of those schools called FOCUS schools, and are working very hard to get underneath complex issues and address the varied needs of students. This year, Teach For America will have 130 corps members in 30 under-performing FOCUS schools in CMS teaching more than 10,000 students in low-income areas. Our corps members are passionate and effective. For the last three years, Teach For America teachers (Kelly Simmons, Senait Tesfait and Lowery Crews) have won the district wide Outstanding First Year Teacher of the Year award. As a program that represents only 10 percent of the district’s new hires, this is a phenomenal testament to the difference our teachers make in students’ lives.

What do you need in Charlotte to make an even greater impact?

The more teachers we have in Charlotte’s FOCUS schools, the more students we can impact. The number of teachers we need and CMS needs is more than our budget can sustain. We bear the cost of recruiting nationally and providing rigorous training, professional development, and ongoing support to corps members. CMS pays the salary of each corps member and pays us a stipend to partially offset our costs, but there is a financial gap that we need to cover to sustain the program. CMS needs us to help address the student achievement gap and we want to grow our impact in Charlotte. I spend much of my time seeking the funding we need and failure is not an option. We recognize that CMS and students are counting on us.

What are your personal ambitions?

I plan on staying in education. I’d like to serve one day as a school principal, and then perhaps serve in a national policy role. I’d also really like to learn how to fly a plane. After learning, I would love to take myself on my own personally designed service tour working with various under-served communities around the world.

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