As a social studies teacher in Houston through Teach for America, Bonnie Southerland, Texas State alumna, experienced the “discrepancies in the public school system” firsthand when she asked her sixth grade student what country he lived in.
“Houston,” he told her.
Southerland’s first day teaching was more than becoming familiar with her new students and surroundings. It was a lesson in the reality of day-to-day life in a school rated “academically unacceptable” by the state of Texas.
“They were so behind in reading and writing and spent the majority of time on these basic skills, instead of other content areas, like social studies,” Southerland said.
Of the 8,526 campuses in the state, 496 rated academically unacceptable in 2011, according to the Texas Education Agency. The agency is responsible for monitoring the accountability of every public and charter school, as well as educational districts.
A district or school that receives an academically unacceptable rating for two consecutive years can be closed by the Texas Education Agency.
Teach for America aims to reconcile low school and district performance ratings. They help resolve factors that may affect state agency decisions, such as teacher shortages. The organization places college graduates trained by the program to teach in high-poverty pre-K through 12th grade schools for at least two years.
Jessica Castanon, Teach for America South Texas recruitment manager, taught in an elementary school in Jefferson Parish. Jefferson is the largest of seven parishes in Metropolitan New Orleans and has experienced debt and teacher layoffs.
Castanon said she experienced problems as a fourth grade teacher with the school’s administration.
“My principal never once saw me teach, and my vice principal saw me once to do my evaluation. It was really frustrating,” she said. “I was a fourth grade teacher and my kids needed to pass a test to go to fifth grade. So, it was a high-stakes year.”
But life for Castanon was not always so hard in the Big Easy.
Castanon said her students’ parents were actively involved in their children’s education at the school. She said veteran teachers across the hall from her classroom provided feedback and support. The help was similar to the training she received from Teach for America employees who trained her during the organization’s five-week summer program.
She heard about the program during her senior year at St. Mary’s University and applied to be an elementary school teacher in New Orleans. She had previously visited the city on a road trip with friends prior to Hurricane Katrina.
Castanon said she was compelled to teach in New Orleans after watching the news coverage of the hurricane’s devastation. She left Texas in 2009 to become a corps member after graduating with a degree in psychology .
“It was a rude awakening, just about what the city had been through,” Castanon said. She was one of 250 Teach for America participants placed in schools throughout New Orleans. “It was also really hopeful as there are new education initiatives.”
These new education initiatives include the charter school where Castanon taught special education for kindergarten through second grade her last year as a corps member.
“Teach for America really challenges you to go above and beyond,” Castanon said. Southerland, much like Castanon, had no prior education experience, having graduated with a geography degree in 2008.
Southerland’s Teach for America experiences have led her back to Texas as a sixth grade instructor in Schertz, as well as back to Texas State to pursue a degree in education.
“I completely fell in love,” Southerland said. “I think Texas State prepares you for Teach for America. We’re very real-world, and we’re very hands-on.”
Twelve Texas State students out of 48,000 applicants nationwide were accepted to Teach for America last year.
Teach for America is the brainchild of Wendy Kopp, who proposed the idea in her Princeton University undergraduate thesis in 1989. Five hundred college graduates joined the organization nationwide the following year.
There have been almost 33,000 participants since 1990.