Grads teaching for TFA in Black Belt face challenges

Last year, The University of Alabama became one of Teach for America’s top contributing schools, joining schools like the University of Michigan, Cornell University and the University of North Carolina, Danielle Montoya, managing director of regional communications at Teach for America, said.

The Capstone ranked 19th among large school contributors, with 35 graduates admitted into program. The program has also recently expanded into Alabama, placing teachers in urban areas like Birmingham, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa and in the rural Black Belt region.

J.W. Carpenter, executive director of Teach for America in Alabama, said the partnership between the University and the program has benefited schools served by TFA.

“We are getting some of the best and brightest locally,” Carpenter said. “I think if we can harness talent we have at home to help our students here in Alabama, I think that’s the way we’re going to win.”

There are roughly 115 teachers with Teach for America in Alabama teaching in 11 districts.

Cathy Trimble, assistant principal at Francis Marion High School in Marion, Ala., said her school faces numerous challenges.

“We are in a very rural, socioeconomically challenged area of Alabama,” Trimble said.

Marion is in Perry County, part of Alabama’s Black Belt.

“The challenges [in the Black Belt] are significant,” Carpenter said. “There are not as many financial resources as in other areas, and many students are far behind, academically.”

But, he said, that is not a reason to accept the status quo.

“Students there are capable of achieving anything that students in suburban or urban areas could.”

Teachers with TFA in Alabama are working hard to provide their students with new experiences, citing a teacher who took students to Beijing this past summer, and teachers who urge their students to participate in robotics competitions.

He also said students are improving, and expectations for them are rising steadily.

“We’re seeing a great deal of impact quantitatively,” he said. “There has been a great improvement in the quality of work that students are doing and the quality of work that is being put in front of them.”

Trimble said the first teachers who came to her school with TFA brought unique qualities to the classroom.

“What was great was the youthfulness they had,” she said. “They could relate to the students, and had a lot of innovative ideas which they were able to utilize in teaching.”

Currently, Francis Marion has four TFA teachers working for the school.

“We are enjoying the relationship between our system and Teach for America,” she said. “The only drawback is that they’re here on a loaning system, and we can’t keep them for a longer period of time.”

Those who teach for TFA commit to working with the program for two years.

“There’s a rich history of community members there really taking the lead on different initiatives in different moments that we can draw on as examples for what we’re trying to do,” Carpenter said.

Students at the Capstone continue to be interested in Teach for America. This year, there were 146 applicants from the University, which is about 3.5 percent of all graduating seniors, Montoya said, slightly up from 139 applicants last year.

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