The Common Good

Serve Your Country: Teach

I grew up in a working-class, African-American neighborhood in Detroit. I was fortunate to have two college-educated parents who knew how to set my brother and me up for success in school. They also knew how to navigate the public school system to ensure we got the best education possible. That support helped me gain entry into a competitive college prep public high school. My path to college was clear: 99 percent of the graduates at my high school went on to four-year colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, my best friend, Amanda, did not have the same opportunities. She attended our neighborhood high school, which was notorious for violence, drop-out rates of more than 50 percent, and a substandard curriculum. During the fall of our senior year, I was anxious about the results of my college entrance exam, the SAT. Amanda asked me, "What's an SAT?" I was floored and angry. How could my talented, witty, brilliant friend have never even heard of the SATs until her senior year? How could Amanda's high school not provide her with the same high expectations that I was getting in my high school? I was also painfully aware that my high school was integrated, with a large percentage of white students, and it was a haven for the children of Detroit's wealthy and elite. Amanda's school was 100 percent African American and made up of predominately working-class families and families dangling at, or in most cases below, the poverty line.

That moment with Amanda set me on a path to determine what I could do to eliminate educational inequity. I was motivated by a strong desire for equity and my personal Christian faith to live out Micah 6:8 in my life: "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

After college I chose to join Teach For America, which is a national corps of outstanding recent college graduates and professionals, of all academic backgrounds and career interests, who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools and become lifelong leaders in expanding educational opportunity. I moved to Los Angeles and taught fifth grade in an under-resourced urban community. I encountered many challenges in my two years, but ultimately I encountered children with incredible academic potential. My job was to give my students the tools to tap into that potential. Through a lot of hard work, my students improved tremendously during the year. I had students who could barely read at the beginning of the year tackling introductory chapter books at the end of the year. Students who could not do basic two-digit addition problems in September were tackling long-division problems by June. But most importantly, I walked away with the knowledge that it is possible to eliminate educational inequity because I saw it happen in my own classroom.

Teach For America is entering its 19th year, and thousands of teachers have joined the movement to eliminate educational inequity. This fall, more than 6,000 corps members will teach in 29 urban and rural regions in more than 100 school districts in 23 states and the District of Columbia. More than 14,000 Teach For America alumni continue working from inside and outside the field of education for the fundamental changes necessary to ensure educational excellence and equity. Teach For America alumni become lifelong advocates for education and justice -- many of them stay in teaching, but they've also gone on to start charter schools, run urban school districts, fight for educational and economic equity through law and public policy, and start health care clinics to provide better health care options to people in low-income communities. While Teach For America is a secular organization, people of faith have been critical in the Teach For America movement. In fact, nearly 50 percent of our current teachers self-identify as people of faith -- and more than 80 percent say their faith was a primary reason they chose to join Teach For America.

I recently attended Sojourners' Pentecost 2008 conference in Washington, D.C., along with almost 300 action-oriented individuals. The three-day training focused on practical ways to mobilize our faith communities around issues of poverty and social justice. The conference provided me with additional tools to fight injustice and reminded me, once again, that people of faith have an obligation and responsibility to be on the front lines to bring about equity. The conference also reminded me that so many people of faith are looking for ways to put their faith into action -- and working to provide all children with a high quality education is one of the most powerful ways we can do that.

To apply to Teach For America or to learn how you can be a part of the movement to eliminate educational inequity, visit www.teachforamerica.org/jointhemovement.

Dr. Nicole Baker Fulgham (nicole.baker@teachforamerica.org) is the national director of Faith Community Relations for Teach for America.

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