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Coming To Bridge The Gap

June 16, 2007
By NIRAJ CHOKSHI, Courant Staff Writer

Alex Spurrier just graduated from college in Minnesota, and with a degree in economics, he could be working for an energy-trading firm in St. Paul. He turned that job offer down to spend the next two years in Hartford's troubled public school system, teaching an elementary class.

Spurrier is one of 25 young educators who will start a minimum two-year stint teaching in Hartford this fall for the nonprofit educational organization Teach for America.

The 17-year-old organization matches top college graduates with struggling inner-city schools to eliminate the achievement gap, Emily Barton, the group's executive director for the state, said in a press conference Friday.

The Hartford Financial Services Group also announced the awarding of $1 million to the organization. The grant, spread out over the next five years, is intended to help defray the group's recruitment, selection, training and ongoing support costs as it expands into Hartford.

The corps members next will go to Philadelphia for an intensive summer training program in teaching before returning to Hartford and their school assignments in late August.

Spurrier spent two years at Trinity College before transferring to Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., closer to his home in suburban Minneapolis. Yet his time at Trinity is what brought him back to Hartford - one of 25 regions available to him.

"I'm acquainted well with the area," he said.

"Being at Trinity puts you in a unique position. ... People can sometimes isolate themselves from the problems. I didn't want to have that isolation continue."

Spurrier is joined by Syeita Rhey, a corps member who grew up in Hartford's Upper Albany neighborhood, graduated from Trinity with a concentration in photography in 2005 and is living with her 85-year-old, adoptive mother in their Edgewood Street home.

Rhey, 25, was born to a 16-year-old mother, entered foster care at the age of 4 and was adopted at 8.

"I was raised in the North End of Hartford. ... I reside in Hartford now, and I have no intentions of leaving anytime soon," she said at the press conference.

Hartford was Rhey's only choice for a placement region. If she wasn't going to be placed in the state, she wouldn't have done the program, she said.

Connecticut is both the wealthiest state and the state with the nation's largest achievement gap between wealthy communities and poor ones, according to a U.S. Department of Education assessment, Barton said. Eliminating that gap is part of Teach for America's mission, she said.

The magnitude of that gap was brought to Spurrier's attention by a class he took in his junior year. As part of the class on urban redevelopment, students were taken into North Minneapolis, which Spurrier says faces problems similar to those in Hartford.

"It really opened my eyes to the issues that are plaguing urban environments," he said. "I was really inspired."

The 25 corps members have not yet been assigned to specific Hartford schools, but 17 will be teaching elementary classes with the rest in secondary schools. The Hartford Board of Education agreed to hire the teachers on Tuesday.

To hear Spurrier talk about the future of both the program and the city is to hear the optimism of Hartford's "Rising Star" campaign embodied.

"It's time for people to step up and really contribute to turning Hartford around and making it one of America's great cities again."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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