Ursa Scherer

Ursa grew up in, and recently returned to rural Western Massachusetts.  In her early days she could be found attending the regional public schools and was rarely more than a few feet away from a basketball at all times.  After attending an engineering undergraduate university, earning a BS in nonprofit management she headed to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer focused on public health.  Ursa has supervised an HIV prevention program in Brooklyn, worked as a counselor with at-risk groups, and managed a dance studio. She first joined Teach For America as an office manager on the Connecticut regional team, and spent four years as a member of the Human Assets Business Partner team. Last summer she transferred to a new role on the Teacher Preparation Support & Development team, where she created and launched a professional development fellowship program for TFA's Teacher Leader Development staff.  Other things to know about Ursa:  she got married 3 years ago, and recently became a first-time homeowner. She enjoys reading light fiction and whatever Huffington Post puts on Twitter. Each year she volunteers at a local Garlic & Arts festival and is proud to support TFA, NPR, and various animal rights groups. You can follow Ursa on twitter @ursaursabobursa.

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About a week ago my mind was blown.  My heart was beating so hard against my chest I think got internal bruising.  What did it?  The amazing Prancing Elites.  Take a minute now and pause your reading to just go watch these videos – they are amazing. 

Photo provided by the Prancing Elites and reprinted with permission

This is the first post in a Pass the Chalk series on the term "achievement gap."

Before the holiday season tempted me with her wily ways—turkey and latkes, egg nog and counting down to the New Year—there was a resurgence of discussion among TFA staff members about the validity of the term “achievement gap.”  This conversation wasn’t new, but the candid reflections of Dr. Camika Royal (Baltimore ’99) had launched a new wake of reactions, including an excellent post from a group of my fellow staff members reflecting less on the privilege inherent in the phrase “achievement gap” and more on the privilege of some of the emotional responses to Dr. Royal’s post. 

For my own part, I’ve been a fan of Dr. Royal’s since I first heard her speak, at TFA’s 20th Anniversary Summit, and when I saw her reflection (and the follow-up posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog) I had one main reaction: YES.

My discomfort with the term “achievement gap” came to a head several years ago, at a panel discussion in New Haven, Conn., on the topic of education and the media. The panelists were local education reporters and the audience was composed of teachers, students, and community members, including a fair number of TFA corps members, alumni and staff.  Toward the end of the discussion, a brave young man who attended one of the schools where TFA corps members teach raised his hand and asked what the panelists meant when they kept saying “achievement gap.”

Photo by Ente75 via WikiCommons

If you’re on Huff Post’s website you’ll see which headlines of the day are being shared most widelylots of stuff on Tuesday’s presidential debate, links about ‘Binders Full of Women’, and apparently J-Lo had a wardrobe malfunction. What you might also see is a story coming out of Waverly, NY where a regularly held pep rally included, for audience entertainment, a skit reenacting domestic violence between pop stars Chris Brown and Rihanna.

Weird yet?  Add in that this school is predominantly white, as were all the actors, who wore blackface for the skit. Wait for ithere’s the thing that really made my jaw hit the floorin a pep rally with students (obvi) there were also parents, faculty, members of the media and community in attendanceand no one stopped the skit.

Photo via WikiCommons. Warner Bros. publicity photo for the film The Jazz Singer (1927), featuring Al Jolson as Jack Robin, in blackface, performing "My Mammy"

I’ve soaked in every sweat-filled, pride inducing moment of the Olympics. I’ve laughed at Samuel L. Jackson’s tweets, groaned at every sexist moment of coverage celebrating female athletes for their bodies versus their talent (THEY’RE AT THE FREAKIN OLYMPICS!), celebrated every underdog’s victory, pounded my fists at the smog of racism that permeates so much of the American coverage, and misted up each time an athlete hugs his or her parents.

And finally, in the rare chance to watch an actual live-telecast event here in the US, I closed out the Games with the gold medal men’s basketball game between the US and Spain. I write this deep in the 3rd quarter, where the US team is up by 3, and I can't tell you, at this moment, who is going to win the game.

The Olympic Rings on Tower Bridge in London. Photo by Gonzolito (via WikiCommons).

Here’s what drives me crazy with this men’s team—and where I see so many parallels to education in our country.  They play in fits and starts.  There are moments when they come together as a great team—but all too often the team misses an opportunity to go on a run.  These are great individual performances.  Durant, Bryant, James—they are playing great basketball—but they tend to do so in turns.

Over the last 25 years, we’re playing a similar fits and starts game in education. 

OK, maybe I’m not glad I failed. These are more like three reasons I’m a better person for having failed calculus. When I shipped off to college, 18, full of promise and enthusiastic to cover everything in my dorm room with leopard-print fabric, I knew one thing emphatically: Having 8 a.m. Calc was not a good thing. My headline may have given it away—I failed that class. It’s the only class I’ve ever failed. But I’m a better person for having taken it, struggled with it, and failed it. When Andrew Hacker contended recently in the New York Times that algebra isn’t necessary, the memory of this class rang loudly in my ears.



Mr. Hacker’s op-ed is well worth the read—and if you fall into the majority of American adults for whom the subject of math “is more feared or revered than understood,” you may find his take extremely compelling. I had plenty of moments where I was nodding alongside him myself. In fact, I’d sign up on the USS NoMoreAlgebra tomorrow but for these three reasons:

Monday marked the all too soon end to a life I have admired for the entirety of mine.  Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, passed away after a long battle with cancer.  Sally was my president, my rabbi, and the keeper of my dreams. Offering inspiration for a generation of girls, her accomplishments made the stars feel in reach for one young girl in a small, rural western Massachusetts town. A girl who sits here as a woman, now the same age as when Sally first went into space, deeply thankful for the inspiration that came from the worn pages of her copy of Ride's children's book, To Space & Back.

Sally Ride in space

Sally Ride in space. Photo courtsey of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

When I was younger I pored over each page of that book.  Every word was a passport to outer space.  But what I loved most were the pictures. Each nook of the shuttle, every cranny in the gadgetsthey filled my mind with possibilities.  Seeing the crew together, all so smart, all in the same flight suitit didn’t matter how much money you had.  And growing up in a low income community, the image of achieving something so great and not having it matter what you were wearing was intoxicating.

To Space and Back by Sally Ride

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