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Teaching To Make A Difference


August 28, 2007

One idealistic young man from rural Pennsylvania won't stop the long downward spiral of the Hartford schools.

But in a city where the biggest achievement gap in the land between white and minority students draws yawns, where an entire school, Milner, still has just a single fourth-grader reaching goal for reading, and where lately a millionaire's decadent new mountaintop mansion seems to attract more attention than children who can't read, Peter Lavorini stands for something.

He's among 30 Teach for America recruits starting on the first day of schoolWednesday in Hartford, one of the nation's worst-performing districts.

To some, it's controversial because the program takes relatively untrained graduates from top colleges and plunks them down in classrooms after a crash course in teaching - pushing aside beliefs that the sole answer to our education problems lies with educators with decades of experience.

Spare me. The problem here is poverty, and we need more people outside the narrow ranks of public education to start paying attention. What we're doing isn't working when 13 percent of third-graders in Hartford are reading at state goal on the mastery tests.

That means nearly 1,500 third-graders aren't. Would we accept this kind of failure in Glastonbury or Avon?

Instead of law school or a job at a bank, Lavorini was sorting through discarded books - in dress shirt and tie - when I found him in his classroom at Burr School the other day.

"It's a civil rights thing," Lavorini told me about urban education and the astounding gap between white and minority students in America. "A person's education is to help them find who they are. An education is supposed to humanize a person. Teach for America is one step."

Sure, he's a fresh-faced 23-year-old right out of Notre Dame. And no, he doesn't have a degree in education, and he's only been here a few weeks. But this is a motivated, high-achieving kid who thinks he can help save urban education.

It's no secret the best graduates don't choose teaching. Emily Barton, a 2004 Yale graduate who oversees teachers working in Connecticut, told me Teach for America is beginning to change career choices for young graduates. This alone is reason enough to support Teach for America.

"We see people making very different career choices as a result of this," Barton said, noting that two-thirds of Teach for America participants stay in education and 200 have risen to become school principals, including Christopher Leone at Hartford's Pathways to Technology Magnet School.

"In 15 years, we'll have 100,000 alumni who have taught in a classroom," Barton said. "How is that going to change America?"

This year, 5,000 corps members will teach in over 1,000 schools, including 115 in Connecticut. This includes 2,900 new recruits, selected from the more than 18,000 applicants from top schools such as Duke, Princeton and the University of Chicago. In Hartford, they earn the $37,239 starting salary for teachers.

Lavorini knows that most of the 27 or so students in his sixth-grade class will be years behind in reading. With help from veteran teachers at Burr, his mission will be to bring them up to grade level.

"We are doing something. We are changing something," Lavorini assured me. "It can be done."

We can cynically smile at this naive optimism, or we can open the door to more young people like him. Because if there are more Peter Lavorinis, we might have more students who can read.

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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