It's the plot of countless movies: naive rookie teacher strives to make a difference, but struggles to reach her inner-city students. This is not how one would describe the typical experience of a Teach For America corps member in Baltimore, however. For one thing, these teachers don't just strive to make a difference, they actually do—and have been for 15 years.
Take Sarah Orao. In her first year of teaching 10th grade government at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School last year, her class had the highest pass rate in the school on the Maryland High School Assessment test (HSA). Of all the government-class students, 92 percent of those taught by Orao and fellow Teach For America corps member Cristina Duncan Evans passed the HSA.
Even more impressive than test scores, though, is the way Orao and her colleagues convert struggling students into enthusiastic learners.
"I teach government, which I love, because this class teaches you how to take control of your life," says Orao. She aims to make lessons as relevant and meaningful as possible to her students' lives. They particularly enjoy the judicial unit in which they study the O.J. Simpson trial. And this year, Barack Obama's presidential campaign has spurred lots of discussion.
Since 1992, Teach For America has placed more than 600 high-achieving college graduates in Baltimore City Public Schools, reaching some 50,000 students. Teachers who are accepted into the program undergo extensive training before they step into the classroom, receive ongoing support from Teach For America throughout their two-year commitment, and are paid $28,000 to $44,000 plus benefits by the school district. Some 90 percent of corps members concurrently work toward their masters in teaching at Johns Hopkins University.
"We think about our mission in two ways," says Omari Todd, executive director of Teach For America Baltimore. "In the short run, we recruit from our nation's top universities and ask our most promising future leaders to commit to teaching for two years in an urban or rural area. Within that [time], we know that people are going to gain this added experience that's going to help them go on and become advocates for public school education."
Teach For America's local operation, which is focused entirely on Baltimore City schools, operates on about $2.9 million in annual revenues from the Baltimore City schools, the federal-state Americorps program, and from dozens of national and local companies, foundations, and individuals, including familiar names like M&T Bank, Wachovia, Bank of America, Northrop Grumman, SunTrust, PNC Bank, and the Travelers, as well as Baltimore-based firms Sylvan Laureate, Erickson Retirement Communities, Constellation Energy, T. Rowe Price, Legg Mason, Provident Bank, and Black & Decker. Also contributing to the cause are local foundations including the Weinberg Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Abell Foundation, and the Aaron and Lillie Straus Foundation.
Currently, 154 Teach For America corps members teach in Baltimore City, and nearly 300 alumni live and work in the area in other cities such as Washington, D.C. and Rochester, NY.
Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP Baltimore, which runs KIPP Ujima Village Academy in Park Heights, is one of them, as is the school's principal, Shayna Hammond. Botel launched the charter school in 2002, after a three-year stint at Booker T. Washington Middle School. "I founded my school with three other Teach For America alumni. At this time, about half our staff are alumni," he says. To Botel, it's not surprising, then, that KIPP Ujima is currently the highest performing public middle school in the city. "Teach For America deserves a ton of credit."
Orao echoes the opinion of many of her Teach For America colleagues when she says, "I feel like Baltimore has so much potential. I have a lot of hope. For my kids and for the city."