-- Opinion --
Kimberly Sanfeliz / Contributing opinion writer
Teach For America has long had a positive presence in New Orleans. For 22 years, our teachers have been working alongside veteran educators in the Crescent City and its surrounding parishes in the hope that one day all children will have access to high quality schools, teachers and expanded life opportunities. After Hurricane Katrina, the number of our teachers in this area grew from 85 in 2007 to more than 350 currently. Our potential for impact is furthered by the 750 program alumni in the region, more than 400 of whom are still working in education, forever transformed by their experiences in the classroom.
I became a teacher in 2009 and taught special education at Douglass High School in the Recovery School District. Douglass, before it was closed, had some of the lowest graduation rates in the city. Learning about my students' experiences deeply affected me and the path of my life. I spent two more years teaching at Craig Elementary, where I watched children blossom into students who blew everyone away with their academic achievement, character and creativity. I now work on staff at the Teach For America office, helping to coach first and second year teachers to become more effective educators and passionate leaders for educational equity in our community.
It is through my experiences as a classroom teacher and on staff that I saw and continue to see the incredible difference that teaching, mentoring, coaching and being involved in a student's life can make. My experiences also continue to affirm that teachers cannot and should not be the single unit of change. Building whole school systems that cultivate the best teaching and learning requires strong leadership inside and outside the classroom and strong partnerships with families and communities. We are only a sum of our parts. Our parts, of course, are the people who have dedicated their lives to our community's ongoing efforts to give every student equal access to the educational opportunities they deserve.
Take Melissa Sawyer, for example. Melissa joined the corps in 1998, where she taught 9th and 10th grade special education students at Booker T. Washington High School. After earning a Masters degree, Melissa returned to work for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, where she saw the incredible difficulties students had to overcome to successfully reenter society after emerging from the juvenile justice system. In 2004, along with two JJPL colleagues, she started the Youth Empowerment Program. YEP provides case management and wrap around services to students who are re-entering society. They operate four community centers and currently serve 1,200 young people. Their staff reflects our community, with more than 70 percent of them born and raised in New Orleans.
Or take Andre Feigler. After witnessing her students' need for positive, structured afterschool activities during her two years of teaching in St. Bernard, she started Youth Run NOLA, an organization dedicated to empowering students through long distance running. From September to April, students participate in twice-weekly practices that not only train them for once-a-month races, but instill in them the organizational values of heath, hope, commitment and community.
These are only two examples of the ideas and abilities Teach For America’s presence brings to New Orleans in addition to the classroom impact of our corps members. In turn, New Orleans brings to Teach For America a wealth of possibility, steeped in tradition, strong and powerful in its history and culture. The two together, powered by people, are creating incredible positive momentum for our kids.
While some critics worry about considering Teach For America a silver bullet solution, the organization fully recognizes that it is one part of a much larger effort involving myriad individuals and organizations across our community. Over two decades, Teach For America has shown long-term commitment to constant improvement and innovative approaches to channeling one source of talented leaders into classrooms, school administration, business, public policy, public health, and other sectors addressing poverty. Through dedication to being the best possible partner for students and communities, I believe Teach For America is and will continue to be an important part of ensuring an excellent education for all children in New Orleans.
As we evolve our education system and work collectively to offer a high-quality public education that will shape and prepare the future leaders of New Orleans and our nation, we will continue to hear debate on the strategy and tactics to achieve the systemic change we need. I’m heartened to know that in our city, education is a top priority and is a topic at dinner tables and neighborhood gatherings. People feel passionate about great education for the next generation and are working hard together to get there, but we also all acknowledge that we have a long way to go. As a city, we are committed to keeping the bar high and only giving ourselves a high grade when students from every background have equal access and academic achievement in every part of every parish.
Kimberly Sanfeliz, the writer, was a 2009 corps member here in New Orleans where she taught special education at Douglass High School and Craig Elementary. She is now on staff at Teach For America as a manager of Teacher Leadership Development, supporting first and second year corps members in their classrooms.
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