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Elite Graduates Teach In Cities

Program Encourages Colleges' Best To Spend 2 Years Working In Poor Areas

June 22, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN -- She thought about going to medical school, but 22-year-old Ohio native Rachel Ryland put those plans on hold, pledging instead to spend two years teaching in one of Connecticut's neediest school systems.

"I was blessed with so many opportunities in education, and I think everyone should have the same opportunities," said Ryland, one of 50 recent college graduates introduced Wednesday as Connecticut's first contingent in the Teach for America program.

"I had great teachers who believed in me," said Ryland, a biology major and University of Toledo graduate who will teach in New Haven public schools starting this fall.

Teach for America, a 16-year-old program that recruits some of the nation's brightest college graduates to work in poor rural and urban schools, had to get special legislation allowing it to come into Connecticut, a state noted for its rigorous standards for entering teaching.

The 50 candidates were granted temporary teaching permits under a recently passed law requiring them to have adequate training, pass tests in the subjects they are assigned to teach and enroll in a teacher training program. Most will teach in New Haven, with a handful assigned to the New Beginnings Family Academy, a charter school in Bridgeport. They will be paid the same as other beginning teachers at those schools.

Some critics have questioned programs such as Teach for America, contending they are putting teachers with little or no experience in some of the nation's neediest and most challenging classrooms.

Still, Teach for America is a popular program at many of the nation's most elite colleges, attracting thousands of applicants willing to delay law school, medical school or other careers for a chance to help low-income schoolchildren.

Program officials said applicants in 2005 included more than 10 percent of the senior classes at schools such as Yale, Dartmouth and Amherst. About 3,500 recent graduates are teaching in more than 1,000 schools across the nation.

"There has been such strong support among school principals and administrators because we're bringing in talented, committed people who want to teach," said Wendy Kopp, the program's president and founder, who was in New Haven Wednesday to greet the new candidates.

In Connecticut, the young teachers will work in schools that struggle to overcome some of the nation's largest academic achievement gaps, with low-income children often trailing far behind middle-class students.

"You're going to meet kids who are in fourth grade who are reading on a first-grade level," Kopp told the young teachers, who will undergo training in Philadelphia this summer before starting their teaching assignments.

Kopp came up with the idea for a national teacher corps when she was a senior at Princeton University, and the program now operates in 25 sites, from big city districts such as New York and Chicago to rural schools in South Dakota and Mississippi.

Teach for America officials are discussing a possible expansion of the Connecticut program to include public schools in Hartford and Bridgeport.

Some educators worry that candidates will leave teaching after only two years, especially in school systems that already experience high rates of teacher turnover. Others say they are concerned about the lack of experience for the new teachers.

"You can have the brightest people in the world ... out of Ivy League schools, [but] that doesn't guarantee they're going to relate well to kids in the classroom," said Sharon Palmer, president of AFT Connecticut, a statewide teachers union.

"It's another experiment," she said. "Obviously, we hope it works."

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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