Young teachers help in tough schools
Teach for America making difference

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- As a student at New York University, Ruth Zemel dreamed of finding a job that would enable her to change the world.

Three years later, she stands in front of a class of high school students in one of Washington's most underprivileged neighborhoods, teaching them mathematics.

"I have homeless students, students who have been abused, students who need to take time off to translate for their parents, students who work 40 hours a week on top of school to help support their families," Zemel said.

Zemel is one of 3,000 teachers recruited under the Teach for America program working in some of the nation's poorest and toughest urban and rural schools this year.

The private non-profit program seeks to mobilize talented and idealistic young people for two-year teaching stints, but over 60 percent choose to stay in education after their commitment is done.

"We've found it is possible to go into a school and create a learning culture in the classroom and it is within a teacher's power to foster success," said Wendy Kopp, who came up for the idea of Teach for America when she herself was an undergraduate at Princeton University in 1989.

The program has proved highly popular; only 14 percent of the 13,500 applicants last year were accepted. The program is expanding to 3,800 teachers next fall.

At Bell Multicultural Senior High School where Zemel is teaching, almost two-thirds of the students are Hispanic and another 25 percent are black.

Assistant principals Darry Strickland and Dahlia Aguilar both started as Teach for America corps members and continued in education.

"Part of my passion now comes from when I saw what was happening to black and brown kids, kids who are poor and those for whom English is a second language," said Strickland. "I fell in love with youth -- with my ghetto kids."

Racial disparities have long been one of the biggest problems facing the U.S. education system. By the fourth grade, students in low-income areas are already three years behind their peers in reading and mathematics.

A new book by Harvard University education and social policy professor Gary Orfield finds that only half of minority students in the United States graduate from high school, a figure that is often disguised in official statistics. Among males, the figure is even lower.

Orfield said many urban high schools had become "dropout factories" with devastating effects on both students and their communities.

Zemel said among her students truancy was a constant problem. "I do everything in my power to get them here. I always try to convey to my students how important it is for them to be here every day," she said.

She raised money from a private donor to pay 10 students $8 an hour to tutor fellow students after school hours and has organized a college trip for nine outstanding students to tour campuses in New York.

"We do activities showing how much more money people make if they have gone to college. These kids have the same talent as more privileged ones, but their skills are lower than they should be," Zemel said.

Despite their youth and lack of experience, Teach for America members produce higher test scores among their students than other teachers in the same schools, according to an independent study released last June.

As for Zemel, she is staying at Bell for a third year. "It's a surprise to me. I didn't intend to stay in education but now I'm here, I can't see how I can leave," she said.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved.