Sometimes the only way to learn how to be better in engaging with your community is to dive into the deep end. In Baltimore, we're 18 months removed from an event that showed us just how much we needed to learn.

In October of 2012, Teach For America Baltimore hosted the Baltimore Educational Equity Summit in honor of 20 years of TFA in our city. We wanted to bring together a diverse cross-section of Baltimoreans invested in our education system—students, parents, organizations, teachers, principals, district officials—to unite behind a vision for improving educational outcomes for our city’s students. The weeks leading up to the summit were terrifying. As we convened thought partners, steering committees, and critical friends, I started to think, “This feels necessary. And challenging. And we are in a bit over our heads.”

In the end, I was proud of the event and the opportunity it created to celebrate with 1,000 members of our growing TFA family. But my team and I also came away from the day feeling that, as we entered our third decade in Baltimore, we needed to be doing more as partners with our community. The process of planning the summit not only gave us the opportunity to forge stronger relationships with many people and organizations we admired, it also illuminated where we were and were not living up to our values in terms of community engagement. 

There were two major lessons that stood out from the summit in relation to our work as a region.

Jessica Castanon Maurer

Michelle Obama at College Week.

Together with Destination College and organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and CityYear, Teach For America-San Antonio helped to put on College Week, a week of events for students designed to make college top-of-mind for students of all ages, from kindergarten through high school, and their parents. This was a truly collaborative effort that brought together likeminded organizations to help prepare San Antonio’s children for college. Each day of the week focused on a different age group: elementary school, middle school, and high school. 

The culminating event was the Mayor’s signing ceremony, in which all high school seniors from across the city were invited to come together to publicly commit to the college or university they will attend next year. Over 2,100 high school seniors, double last year’s attendance, packed the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Convocation Center to publicly commit to their future college. Among those in attendance were Mayor Julian Castro and a very special guest: the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.  

The week stems from an ambitious city-wide goal that 80% of San Antonio’s high school seniors in the year 2020 will enroll in college. This goal was set as part of SA2020, a road map for working toward a collective community vision of what we want San Antonio to be by the year 2020. Eleven issues were identified as most important to address in order to transform San Antonio. Education was one of the top priorities identified.

Jacqueline Soohoo

Imagine your breakfast is cooked by students and served with freshly picked, wild thimbleberries. Imagine your morning commute to school is a swift hike through moss-covered buckeye trees. Imagine your classroom is a circle of logs underneath the shade of a tree, where students are busy painting interpretations of vocab words on rocks, while another group is reading a novel in the grass.

It’s not just imagination. It’s Camp Phoenix.

Camp Phoenix was founded in 2012 by three Teach For America alumni and former staff members, providing students from low-income areas with an intensely academic and joyful overnight summer program in the Bay Area. Summer is a critical time for children, as research shows that high-income children typically gain months of learning through education-rich activities—such as traveling and camp—while low-income children lose two months of learning.

Summer matters, and Camp Phoenix aims to reimagine what summer can be.

Kira Orange Jones

(Photo credit: Billy Metcalf Photography)

Substantial academic progress has been real across New Orleans. I see it in classrooms at schools and in my time with students, parents, and educators. Yet the challenges we face in New Orleans public schools are complex and nuanced; they defy easy descriptions or pronouncements. So when I read Jordan Flaherty’s recent piece, “New Orleans Teachers and Students Wrestle With Racial Tension,” I hoped it might touch on some of the concerns I’ve had on my mind: big questions about the past and present of our schools, how they intersect with our city’s complex history or race and class, and how they’ll impact our shared future.

What I found was something that didn’t capture the complexity we’re all grappling with as we work to provide our students with a life-changing education that maintains a high bar for academic rigor and meaningful pathways to opportunity and at its core nurtures and supports who they are and where they’re coming from. While the article sheds light on a crucial challenge before us in New Orleans schools, it also perpetuates a false dichotomy between a culturally idyllic view of the past and a blindly academically focused present. 

(Image credit: Tsahi Levent-Levi)

For the past three and a half years, I have been spending my time in close partnership with two of our Rio Grande Valley school districts—IDEA Public Schools, an open-enrollment public charter, and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, a traditional school district—as part of a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) Race to the Top grant. Our goal has been to create new and improved systems in the human-capital work of each institution, and we’ve learned a lot about what it takes create an effective partnership between public school districts and an education non-profit. (In fact, one of my colleagues in this work, Audrey Hooks—Houston ’02—contributed to a Huffington Post piece that shares some of these lessons.)

And as we’ve come to the final year of the i3 grant, we have begun to expand our collaborative network to other districts in South Texas. This has led to the establishment of a human-capital professional learning community. Our PLC kicked off in October 2013 to provide opportunities for participating districts to come together, share best practices, try new things, learn from each other, and build connections with professionals doing similar work. Given the many cross-institutional conversations happening as part of RGV Focus (a regional “collective impact” initiative),we felt this was an opportune time to engage in formal discussions focused on lessons learned. The main takeaway? No single institution has all of the answers all of the time, and discussing our work with colleagues has been critical in thinking about our systems and processes.

(Photo: Wikicommons)

The sun is just inching over the horizon as I make my way out the door to work every morning. My journey from my apartment in Midtown to Miami Northwestern Senior High is a short one, but you would not know it considering how drastically the landscape changes. In the seven minutes it takes me to get to and from work, I pass by glittering condominiums, manicured boulevards, and Rolls Royce dealerships; I-95 takes me straight through or completely over dilapidated housing developments, vacant lots, and storefront churches. This ride represents a sort of microcosm of my Miami experience, with I-95 serving as the thread that ties it all together. Similar to how the freeway bridges the northern and southern sections of the city, I-95 connects the several communities that I have been a part of in my three years in Magic City. 
 
When I first arrived to Miami I was an AmeriCorps volunteer, and I lived in a neighborhood called Overtown. Overtown has a reputation for being a little rough around the edges, however, it was the only place relatively close to my job that I could afford to live. Although I am not a native Miamian, my southside Chicago swag equips me with a unique confidence. (“This place ain’t got nothin’ on Englewood.”) Not to mention, I did my research on the history of the area, and learned that Overtown, formerly called Colored Town, was known as the Harlem of the South, home to some of the most iconic entertainment venues in Miami, and served as a hub for Black commerce and intellectualism. So I packed my bags and decided to become a “Towner.”

Josh Anderson/Brandon Bodor
Illinois is known for many things: our deep dish pizza, our proud embrace of frigid winters, an almost unfair assortment of sporting dynasties. But look down any block and you’ll see what truly makes our state great: our people – neighbors helping neighbors, forging bonds which bolster the community for everyone. In this season of resolutions, let’s resolve to make this commitment to service deeper than ever. Alone we are strong, but together we are stronger. 
 
The Land of Lincoln is home to a remarkable force of individuals working to make our communities healthier and more resilient. According to the latest Volunteering and Civic Life in America report, 2.73 million Illinoisans volunteered nearly 286 million total hours in 2012 – a contribution valued at $6.6 billion. While that’s a feat we should all be proud of, these committed citizens represent just 27% of our state’s potential volunteers. Just imagine the possibilities for our schools, elder care providers, and countless other institutions if 100% of us made a contribution. 

Mayor Hancock, Mayor Johnson and Mayor Castro answer questions from Teach For America corps members and alums.

Today, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson joined three mayors from across the country to emphasize his commitment to educational equity in our city and showcase our progress and innovations.  The Mayors’ For Educational Excellence Tour is in Sacramento to raise awareness and convene conversations about what cities can learn from each other in the quest to do right by all kids in this nation. Currently, California lags behind in many critical indicators including the nation’s already bleak levels of third grade reading, a grade considered to be critical in young people’s long-term education prospects.  One of our Mayor’s priorities for Sacramento is early childhood education and grade level reading by third grade.   This day is particularly powerful for me because I had the good fortune of serving the city of Sacramento as the first director of the Sacramento READS! Third Grade Literacy Campaign.  In that role I learned about the research indicating that a child’s interest in reading and ability to comprehend by third grade is an astonishingly accurate predictor of future success in the classroom and beyond, especially because third grade is the time when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

Student in the Hawi'i region.

Native Heritage Month ended a few days ago; during November, I spent a lot of time reading, listening, and learning. As a leader of Teach For America, it’s my job to understand all the communities we partner with. As an American, it’s important for me to understand the nations who were first on this land.

I’m called to note that there is no single Native Heritage—566 American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Villages are recognized by the U.S. government as sovereign nations, each with distinct cultures, languages, and histories. So in November, we don’t honor one heritage; we honor many.

Native communities share, however, a history of violence at the hands of our government. A month’s remembrance can’t make that go away--but as individuals, we can make an effort to learn and advocate for equity today.

McAllen, TX (Photo: flickr)

There's been some recent press about South Texas that would paint our community as a place without much to offer– and a place where it's very hard to survive. Last month, Brownsville was named the poorest city in America and McAllen, the other major city that bookends our region, is just two rows down in the list. Then, on November 9th, the Washington Post ran a story titled “Too Much of Too Little,” which detailed the confluence of factors affecting the health of our population, includinghigh rates of obesity and diabetesand a reliance on government subsidies.

Unfortunately, some of this may be true – but there’s also a lot that is tremendous about the region I call home. For me, the hard part about reading these stories is that they cannot accurately capture the full diversity and richness of experience in the South TexasI’ve come to know. There is no arguing that the data that the stories put forth is of concern, but there are other stories happening in South Texas that I must share.

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