Mind the Gap

An inner-city schoolteacher revels in the goodwill around ed reform. In about three weeks, I will be in New Orleans with 12...

An inner-city schoolteacher revels in the goodwill around ed reform.

In about three weeks, I will be in New Orleans with 12 of my students and two colleagues for a post-Katrina service-learning project. This trip has been made possible by the enormous amount of positive energy (and cash) that currently envelops the education reform movement.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know that education reform is hot right now. Granted, I haven’t exactly been immersed in this field for years, but it only takes hearing the President of the United States weigh in on the firings of a Rhode Island high school or a quick glance at the recent cover stories of Newsweek, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine—“The Key to Saving American Education,” “What Makes A Great Teacher?” and “Building a Better Teacher,” respectively—to recognize the interest in and momentum behind fixing America’s (f)ailing schools.

Fortunately for me, interested parties are putting their money where their mouths are. While the Gates Foundation attempts large-scale reforms, smaller scale do-gooders can log onto DonorsChoose and fund individual teachers’ projects. And down on Wall Street, the Times recently pointed out that hedge-fund managers are jostling for positions on the boards of charter schools.

It is in this climate that my project-planning colleagues and I raised more than $15,000 from over 120 people—with donations as small as $10 and as large as $7,000—to finance our students’ trips to New Orleans. While we’re not quite at the fundraising level of the Obama campaign, we similarly tapped into the Hope and Change Reservoir. People are financially supporting efforts to bring equity to public education and expand opportunity to all.

Now how did this project come to be, you ask?

Last April, two colleagues and I began planning a project to expand our students’ perspectives and experiences. We wanted to get our students out of the Bronx and have them explore another American city before they head off to college. We saw New Orleans as an opportunity for them to explore a dynamic, unique culture, participate in post-Katrina rehabilitation efforts and see what lessons New York can glean from the myriad issues that have surrounded the reemergence of the city (i.e. charter schools, environmentalism, etc.). One of my colleagues began teaching government and economics the same month Katrina descended upon New Orleans, and he’d been looking for an opportunity to get our students to the city ever since.

Meanwhile, I had just completed a trip to Washington, D.C., and was eager to pair up to take on a larger project. We sketched out objectives for a trip to New Orleans as well as a sample itinerary and a syllabus for an after-school class that would precede the trip. Now, all we needed was funding.

Buoyed by the tale of a fellow Teach for America corps member who has raised $25,000 in successive years to bring his students from New Orleans to D.C., I dove into our prospective project with aplomb. In the fall, I had dinner with a Manhattan banker-turned-philanthropist who I'd met through Teach for America's Sponsor-A-Teacher, which pairs corps members with corporate sponsors. We had been linked together for more than a year, but had never met up. Over dinner, I casually mentioned my New Orleans ambition. Four e-mails later, he committed to a $7,000 donation.

What are the effects of this increased interest? A dozen of my students, some of whom could not have located New Orleans on a map when our after-school class started in January, are now debating which areas of the city should be rebuilt first. These juniors and seniors, some that didn't know what charter schools were, are analyzing the benefits of their increased test scores and accountability against their impact on English-language learners and special education students. And these dozen students are giddily preparing for a week of jambalaya-eating, jazz-listening, service-giving fun.

Take a recent post by a student on our group’s blog:

“So I had some alone time, & it crossed my mind to view some pictures of New Orleans after the hurricane. It broke my heart to see some of the things I saw. I thought about how the people felt and imagined my own self in the same situation. It just makes me mad to think that the government didn’t even do as much as they could of to help the people and get them out of there at the right time. Seeing & thinking about these things really makes motivates me to do whatever I can to help and make a change.”

South Bronx teenagers have not always cared about the government’s response to a natural disaster hundreds of miles away. I hope you'll join us on our voyage.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays. It should be noted that while fundraising goals for this spring's New Orleans trip have been met, the school hopes to continue such projects on an annual basis and welcomes any and all contributions.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user majoracartergroup.


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