Teaching program targets low-income schools

Time is running out for Portland State seniors to apply to the acclaimed Teach For America program, which provides an opportunity to effect change in the lives of countless children and teens.

Time is running out for Portland State seniors to apply to the acclaimed Teach For America program, which provides an opportunity to effect change in the lives of countless children and teens.

TFA gives college graduates from any field of study a chance to become paid educators for students in impoverished public schools. The final application deadline for seniors this year is Feb. 15.

TFA is a national nonprofit organization that began as an undergraduate thesis in 1989. Its mission is to eliminate educational inequity by developing educational leaders who will continue to fight for students in the future.

“There are 16 million kids growing up in poverty, and the vast majority are not getting the education they deserve,” said Cara Benny, who graduated from PSU with a degree in psychology and taught in Hawaii through TFA. She is now the local recruitment manager.

“What we do is recruit and train recent college graduates to teach in high-need public schools and become lifelong advocates for educational equity,” Benny said.

Preparation includes a five-week summer session in one of 10 training locations around the country. The training focuses on the demands of teaching in a low-income community and includes hands-on experience through leading a summer class.

TFA teachers, known as corps members, are held to a two-year commitment. During that time they become certified educators and are paid full salaries through their school, just like any other teacher.

Acceptance into TFA is rather competitive. According to Benny, only 17 percent of the more than 48,000 applications received last year were accepted. Requirements for prospective corps members include a minimum 2.5 GPA, U.S. citizenship or permanent residency and a bachelor’s degree.

Benny said she looks for people who have perseverance in the face of obstacles and, most of all, a deep belief in the potential of all kids. This year, two PSU undergraduates in the Child and Family Studies Program were offered spots with the prestigious organization.

“When I heard of TFA I thought, wow, what a great idea,” said Miranda Perez, recent PSU graduate and one of the accepted corps members.

“My long-term goal is to be involved in policy in some way. I want to start teaching so I can learn, from the ground up, how to address educational issues,” she added.

Perez explained that her studies at PSU helped motivate her to seek leadership opportunities in the Portland community. She was an intern with the Latino Student Union at Lincoln High School, which helped her stand out to TFA.

Perez will be teaching elementary school students beginning this fall in San Antonio, Texas. The region was her top choice, as it is her hometown.

Although applicants are able to indicate preferences for their placement, locations can be dictated by regional needs. Corps members do not have to fully commit until after they are informed where they will be placed.

Erin Seitz is the other PSU student who was accepted by TFA, and is currently a senior. She chose to decline the offer, however, and will instead pursue continuing education in her home state of Alaska. TFA does not currently have a region there.

PSU’s Child and Family Studies Program is housed in the School of Social Work. Ben Anderson-Nathes has served as the program director since 2011 and is also an adjunct professor. He regards TFA as an elite program for his students.

“It’s probably most attractive to people who plan to make a career in education. I think that’s part of how the design works best, but not exclusively so,” he said.

Anderson-Nathes feels that TFA is not for the faint of heart and explained that teaching can be difficult even in the best of circumstances. He has concerns about graduates being put into action if they aren’t fully prepared.

“You’re teaching in an unfamiliar environment amidst a climate of uncertainty while also trying to finish an educational program. It’s definitely a pretty tall order.”

Perez acknowledged the challenges she will face come fall, but feels secure with the support TFA will be providing her during her teaching assignment. She has high hopes that it will be a rich and rewarding experience.

With the application deadline of Feb. 15 rapidly approaching, Benny encouraged those interested in TFA to apply. She explained that the application takes about three hours to complete and can be submitted through teachforamerica.org.

Benny offered this advice for PSU underclassmen who may be interested in pursuing TFA in the future: “Take on a lot of leadership opportunities and gain experience volunteering in low-income areas to get a feel for what this work will be like.”