Closing the gap

  • Article by: EMILY JOHNS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2009 - 5:25 PM

Teach for America teachers bring youthful enthusiasm to local classrooms.

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Aneesh Sohoni, 21, a political science graduate from the University of Minnesota, worked at Opportunity High School in Minneapolis, a school for Somali students who are still learning English. The teaching program aims to reduce the achievement gap in schools with high numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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As Sarah Schultes talked on the phone last week, you could hear students in the background asking for her help, even though school was over for the day.¶ Schultes, a fresh college graduate in her first year teaching in the Minneapolis public schools, said that her first day on the job at Anderson United Community School was "inspiring," "scary," "eye-opening," "exciting" and "humbling" all at once.

"You can see improvement every single day," said Schultes, who is an eighth-grade science teacher. "You learn something new every single day about what works in the classroom and what doesn't."

She is not, however, a traditional first-year teacher with a teaching degree and a regular teaching license.

Schultes is one of 43 teachers in the "Teach for America" program that is debuting in Minnesota this year. Teach for America is a national service program dedicated to reducing the achievement gap in schools with high numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

The program was founded nearly 20 years ago, and it has 7,300 teachers nationwide this year. The teachers, who are recent college graduates, commit to spending two years on the job. This school year 15 teachers are in the Minneapolis public schools, five in the Brooklyn Center schools and 23 in area charter schools.

In Minnesota, the Teach for America teachers enroll at Hamline University to obtain their state teaching certification while teaching. They also went through a five-week intensive course over the summer in Los Angeles, where they taught summer school while taking classes.

"It was very rigorous and extremely helpful," said 21-year-old Aneesh Sohoni, a recent political science graduate from the University of Minnesota. Sohoni is teaching at Opportunity High School in Minneapolis, a contract alternative school dedicated to teaching Somali students who are still learning English.

"In college, I was responsible for myself and making sure I got my work done," he said. "But in the teaching profession, you're responsible for 70 to 80 students in your school. There is not a day you can take off, because any day you take off means the students aren't learning."

The program has raised objections from Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union, which questions the wisdom of putting relatively untrained teachers in the neediest classrooms in the state.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher told the Star Tribune in June that "we are expecting more and more from our students ... so it doesn't seem like a time to be experimenting."

But Daniel Sellers, executive director of the Twin Cities Teach for America program, said that the Teach for America teachers, "for better or for worse, are idealistic." They're smart -- the average college GPA of this year's teachers is 3.6 -- and they're willing to work hard.

When they "walk into a high school English classroom where kids are barely" able to read, Sellers said, they "realize that the gap that needs to be overcome" is so large that they "have to go above and beyond."

Sellers said over coffee last week that comments from Dooher when the program was announced made him nervous that the Teach for America teachers would get a chilly reception in the Minneapolis public schools. But both Sohoni and Schultes said their new colleagues couldn't be more helpful.

Sellers said that he was encouraged that no problems have arisen. He thinks that while some teachers might not like Teach for America, "It's hard not to like the teacher down the hall who is working their tail off for kids."

Teachers in the program are paid the same salary as beginning teachers in the districts -- $27,000 in Minneapolis and $33,000 in Brooklyn Center.

Sohoni, who grew up in Plymouth and graduated from Wayzata High School, said that he applied for Teach for America because "students living in poverty face adverse chances of being educated, based on where they live and where they're born. That's something that really made me angry," he said.

"I know education was a big part of my life, and having the opportunity to be raised in an affluent community, I knew I was lucky."

Schultes, who graduated last spring from Arizona State University with a biology degree, was planning to go to law school when she talked to a Teach for America recruitment director.

"As I learned more and more, I became more and more impressed," she said. "Their goal is to close the achievement gap. I just truly believe that [the gap] is an injustice."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460

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