Last week a letter signed by a small group of Teach For America corps members and alumni was sent to Lindsay DeFrancisco, Teach For America-Phoenix. The letter asked the region not to accept a $500,000 appropriation included in Arizona’s state budget. Pass The Chalk sat down with Lindsay to learn more about what’s happening on the ground.

For children who grow up in rural poverty, success is often synonymous with “getting out.” In Appalachia, we do not ascribe to this narrow vision of achievement. We want our students to receive a 21st century education that prepares them to drive innovation within their home communities. We are committed to a homegrown approach, working alongside teachers, parents, and local leaders to invest in Appalachia’s greatest natural resource: its young minds.  

Fueling a pipeline of homegrown leaders requires ongoing collaboration with a diverse set of education advocates, like Holy Cross professor Dr. Jack Schneider. Because of our focus on engaging thought-partners on our homegrown approach, I’ve spent time reflecting on Dr. Schneider’s recent Education Week piece titled “Reinventing Teach For America.” Even though his commentary included some inaccuracies (which have been addressed on our On The Record page), Dr. Schneider’s thoughtful suggestion that Teach For America (TFA) focus on recruiting “its teachers from the alumni rolls of the elementary and high schools where it places teachers” is one that resonates with our work.

Watching the shocking, appalling images coming out of Ferguson via Twitter over the last two weeks, I’ve been feeling like a spectator to an effort to preserve American civil liberties and uphold our American ideals, but not a contributor to it.

(Photo courtesy of DeRay McKesson)

“I got my hands on my head, please don’t shoot me dead.”

From the 5 days that I’ve been here marching and protesting thus far, this chant hits me the hardest.

Brittany Packnett

The air is thick here in Ferguson.

Here, in my hometown, only 12 minutes from my house, the air is thick with racial tension, mounting distrust of authority, flowing tears of a community in grief and civil unrest and frustration with consistent injustice.

The air is also thick with tear gas. 

By now, you’ve seen national news reports that tell you what I’ve known all my life: North County can be especially dangerous for black folk.  Black men.  Young black men. Young black men like Mike Brown.

Last Saturday, our young brother Mike, in whom his mother had placed her hopes and dreams, was murdered at the hands of someone meant to serve and protect, but who for decades has only been seen as one who intimidates and terrorizes.

Years earlier, my brother’s first encounter with police brutality occurred in a neighborhood with an eerily similar reputation, directly adjacent to Ferguson.  My father, a well-respected Pastor and College Professor was thrown against the hood of his imported car and beaten as my brother watched, screaming and crying from the backseat. 

My brother was 5.

That was 20 years ago.

In those 20 years, the story has remained the same.  Strike that.  The story has actually changed.  It is now deadly.

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.


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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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