As students at the University of Miami, Nayda Verier-Taylor, B.S.C. ’08, and Jason Starr, B.B.A. ’05, gained a firsthand glimpse of problems plaguing the nation’s public education system. Starr, a marketing major, volunteered with a program combating youth violence in Detroit during an alternative spring break sophomore year. Throughout her undergraduate studies, journalism and political science major Verier-Taylor tutored students in private high schools.

Both say they witnessed a kind of parallel universe in which geography and money dictated how children were prepared for life. And it seemed grindingly unfair to them.

What they experienced prompted the recent alums to sign on for two years of public service with Teach For America (TFA), a 19-year-old nationwide program that trains top-level college graduates to aggressively raise educational standards at schools in our poorest communities. They were rewarded with six-day, 80-hour weeks, low pay, and the challenge of teaching in the nation’s most impoverished and violent neighborhoods.

Verier-Taylor’s assignment to a Los Angeles high school started last year. “Eight months in, I’m exhausted,” acknowledges the Phi Beta Kappa member, who was opinion editor of The Miami Hurricane, an Alumni Association student ambassador, and the Golden Key Honor Society public relations chair, among her other activities at UM. “I’ve never been so frustrated and inspired simultaneously. Some days I wonder what the heck I was thinking getting into this, and other days I am so content with the path I have chosen.”

In 2007 Starr completed his assignment as a middle-school math teacher in Miami. He’s now finishing his second year at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. “For all the support Teach For America provides,” he says, “teaching is just a very difficult profession. There was a lot of on-the-job training and a very steep learning curve.”

Whether students are responding to President Barack Obama’s call to public service, the economic downturn, or other factors, TFA is becoming an increasingly popular choice among the ambitious and service-minded who seek a challenge. “We’re seeing a growing enthusiasm among young people for public service,” says Robert Orr, the organization’s South Florida recruitment director.

This year’s applications were up a record 42 percent nationally over 2008, which was itself a record-setter. That nationwide spike in popularity is reflected at the University of Miami, which TFA sees as prime hunting ground for exceptional students. Last year TFA selected around 3,600 from roughly 25,000 applicants nationwide. Among those, 21 were UM grads—nearly double the 13 UM graduates chosen in 2007 and exponentially more than in prior years.

“We typically look for someone with a lot of achievement, a lot of drive,” Orr says. “At the University of Miami, the caliber of student is very high. There are a lot of leaders there.”

Brittany Miller, A.B. ’09, an international studies and Spanish major who minored in education, was a Teach For America campus campaign coordinator her last semester at UM. She’ll begin a two-year TFA assignment in Phoenix, Arizona, this fall. Like UM alumni before her, she has a strong record of school and com-munity service and is an academic achiever. “I knew I wanted to work in education, and the more I learned about Teach For America and how they were working to close the achievement gap in innovative, effective ways, the more I knew this was the perfect fit for me,” Miller says. “I think this will be an incredibly challenging experience, but also a very rewarding, meaningful opportunity.”

That was the appeal Princeton undergraduate Wendy Kopp was counting on when she founded Teach For America as her senior thesis in 1989. She believed many of her peers would forgo high-paying jobs to teach the nation’s poorest for two years if there was a teaching corps that strived for excellence. Hoping to channel the same energy that compelled smart young people to join the Peace Corps, she recruited as aggressively as top corporations.

In 1990, with a start-up budget of $2.5 million, TFA placed its first 500 teachers in six low-income communities. Today TFA’s budget is $122 million, and it has more than 6,000 corps members spread out among 29 communities. The school districts in which they teach pay their salaries.

“Our success has a lot to do with our recruitment efforts,” Orr says. “We set up meetings with top seniors, whom we identify through various ways: recommendations from current corps members, faculty members, and our organization partners. This enables us to explain exactly what we do. We don’t downplay how hard this is. We want people who are committed to seeing it through.”

That personal attention pays dividends. It was a one-on-one session with a recruiter that inspired Lisa Cossrow, A.B. ’07, an English major, to join. “When she talked with me, she had just finished her two-year commitment in Georgia,” Cossrow recalls. “She was a fourth-grade teacher, and she described how all her students were at a first-grade reading level and how she was able to bring them up to a fifth-grade level. I was on a law school track, but I remember thinking, ‘Wow.’

“[Some] people criticize Teach For America for hiring neophytes who leave after two years,” Cossrow continues. “But this woman had such mission dedication, and she had just extended her commitment. I said, ‘Sign me up!’”

Cossrow, unlike most TFA recruits, initially worked in TFA’s national headquarters in New York City. After a year of leading the campaign to recruit teachers from seven upstate New York universities, she realized she had also recruited herself. Her first step after joining the corps was to undergo TFA’s mandatory five-week teacher-training institute—a kind of boot camp, where stamina is pushed to the limit.

“We were working close to 20-hour days in the summer,” recounts Verier-Taylor, who now works until 9 p.m. teaching and writing lesson plans, and spends Sundays prepping for the week ahead. “So now to go to the gym seems like a luxury.”

During their training, members learn how to inspire the best efforts of their public school students, whatever their backgrounds. After placement, support is ongoing, with veteran teachers assigned to coach new members and regular meetings held to go over classroom management and student progress. Meanwhile, members track their students’ progress for TFA administrators to review.

But all the training in the world is often not enough preparation for that first day in the classroom. Starr went to a middle school in Miami. “There was little resembling a school other than classrooms, books, and teachers,” he notes of the crumbling facility he encountered. Starr also discovered that many of his students couldn’t tackle his first assignment—writing a simple letter explaining what they expected of him. “That became a weeklong project,” he recalls.

Verier-Taylor found out that several of the juniors in her Los Angeles high school could read only at a second-grade level. The first book she assigned them had to be read out loud, word for word. “It took nearly three months,” she says.

In Brooklyn, Cossrow is also playing catch-up, teaching math to fifth-graders. “A lot of them have come into our school around three years behind, and I have to do everything in my power to make sure that they develop the conceptual understanding in math they need to be successful,” she says. In under a year, four other non-TFA teachers had left the job. “Just staying and being a consistent presence for them is really important,” she adds. “I won’t let them have another teacher this year.”

Sixty-five percent of TFA participants continue beyond their two-year commitment, a Harvard University study found. That was the case with Wendy-Ann Dixon, A.B. ’06, who was president of the United Black Students organization, worked in the UM admissions office, and participated in numerous campus leadership organizations. Dixon thought TFA was substantively addressing the social problems she was studying as a criminology major. The organization placed her in a Miami elementary school.

“That first year was extremely intense,” Dixon admits. “I expected to have a lot of difficulties. But it was beyond my expectations.” She observed that many of her students had learning disabilities, and many of the parents did not provide support at home. “There was not the same belief in education I grew up with,” she concludes.

Dixon and the other corps members at her school formed a kind of support group. “We kept saying, ‘OK, if you don’t quit, I won’t quit.’ We wouldn’t let each other abandon the students,” she says.

After her second year, Dixon began to see results; her students’ reading and language abilities improved. “That indicated to me that there was a purpose for me to do this,” she says. “I’ve decided to stick around for a third year.”

As a result, Dixon enrolled in a nonprofit master’s degree program at the University of Central Florida. “I don’t know if I’ll stay in the classroom,” she says, “but I want to stay in the nonprofit field and deal with educational issues.”

TRISTRAM KORTEN is a writer living in Miami Beach, Florida.

UM’s Teach for America history

Year


1990
1994
1998
2000
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007


2008

# Corps Members from UM
1
1
1
2
2
2
2
2
6
3
13


21

Region(s) Served


New York   
Rio Grande Valley
Los Angeles
Houston   
Newark, Los Angeles   
New York   
Chicago; Washington, D.C.   
Houston   
New York, Miami, Houston   
Atlanta, Memphis, Miami   
Baltimore; Houston; New York; Chicago; Hawaii; Washington, D.C.; Columbia, South Carolina; Phoenix; Miami; Greater New Orleans   
Los Angeles, Rio Grande Valley, Baltimore, Miami, New York, St. Louis, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Bay Area, Indianapolis, Hawaii   
Source: Teach for America