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Believing poor and minority students can achieve, a new teacher finds purpose in South Los Angeles


Sara Garcia, a Teach for America recruit, measures her success in “the little triumphs I see every day”


By Brandon Bridges

SOUTH GATE  - When Sara Garcia gets up at 5:45 a.m. every weekday, just before the sun rises above her oceanside condo in Redondo Beach, she looks out at the Pacific for a minute of peace and calm before she begins her commute to South Los Angeles to start her day as high school teacher.Garcia, 23, works at South East High School in South Gate, just a stone’s throw away from Compton and Watts. It is a sobering change of landscape from her idyllic home. Instead of palm trees and bungalows, she sees graffiti and run-down buildings.


Sara Garcia
Sara Garcia

SIDEBAR: Take a closer look with Sara Garcia.


But Garcia moved to Los Angeles just over a year ago from Chicago, fresh from her 2006 graduation from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, specifically for the purpose of teaching in one of the country’s most under-resourced urban school districts.  As a newly-minted teacher who earns $35,000 a year, Garcia is also a member of Teach for America (TFA), a program founded in 1989 to improve flagging achievement gap in low-income communities across America.

TFA recruits members from top undergraduate institutions and asks them to commit two years to teaching in an urban school district. There are currently 400 TFA teachers in the Los Angeles area and 3,100 TFA members across the U.S. teaching in schools like South East High, which has an enrollment of just under 3000, 99 percent of which are Latino.  This reflects the community of South Gate, whose 103,547 residents are almost exclusively working class and immigrant Latino families.


Doing more with less

Like many in TFA, Garcia believes that the staggering disparity in achievement seen between millions of low-income and minority children and their middle-to-upper class counterparts can be resolved by committed people. “These kids aren’t given a fair shot to do well, but TFA puts teachers into their lives who are committed to helping them realize their potential,” Garcia said.The ‘fair shot’ Garcia is referring to is the inequality in funding due to the property taxes that fund school districts. The funding crunch in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and across the nation, is well-documented, and when combined with inadequate housing, healthcare and pre-school opportunities, education policy experts maintain the public school system doesn’t work as well in poor communities.

Nine-year-olds in poor communities are generally three grade levels behind most students. By the time they reach graduation, nearly half will already have dropped out, according to a 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress study.  The failure rates have fueled efforts to hold school systems and teachers more accountable through the passage of legislation such as the No Child Left Behind program, designed to bring all American public schoolchildren up to grade level proficiency. Teachers are considered key – some say they are the most important player -- in this campaign, and Teach for American recruits, indeed the entire process of educating people to teach, is at the center of a debate over how best to train new generations of educators.

Beginning teachers, like Garcia, often spend four years in an education school to receive their credentials, a semester of which is spent student-teaching under the guidance of a trained professional. But as a member of Teach for America, Garcia spent only one summer training before her first year of teaching; training which consisted of an education major’s undergraduate coursework at a much abbreviated pace. Teaching reading and writing, as well as methods of instruction, for example, are courses generally taught over a semester that TFA members had to absorb in one highly compacted summer session. 

In addition, Garcia had control of her own summer school class under teacher supervision and weekly meetings of TFA learning communities that collaborate with experts in the field on learning various teaching methods. Guilbert Hentschke, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, said that TFA training concentrates less on cementing the art of teaching and more on giving its members practical experience. “They do more by doing less,” he said.


A debate  over teacher training

But Brian Johnson, executive director of the TFA Los Angeles office, said that while TFA teachers do not go through a traditional training process, the intense model of training and the support of the regional TFA offices give members a unique background that makes them effective in the classroom.“We enable TFA teachers to have the same basic set of skills as other beginning teachers,” he said.

The numbers would suggest that Johnson’s theory holds true. An independent study by the Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., a non-partisan firm that conducts policy research in Princeton, NJ, compared TFA teachers to others in their same school and found that, on average, students of TFA teachers showed equal progress in reading and two percentile points higher in mathematics than students of non-TFA teachers. This explains why 91 percent of Los Angeles principals who participated in an independent 2005 survey commissioned by Teach for America said they regard TFA teachers as more effective than other beginning teachers.

Garcia acknowledges that her training was short, but she said that critics should not discredit the success of TFA.“No one has come up with a better option to fix the problem in urban schools, so we have to take progress where we can get it,” she said. Johnson said the success is a result of TFA’s belief in the fact that despite limited resources, low income students can demonstrate the same achievement as other students.

 “We have a critical mass of leaders that believe in the abilities of these children, whereas the prevailing ideology among most teachers fails these students,” he said.USC’s Hentschke said beyond the pessimistic viewpoint of most teachers, urban school districts have historically received the worst pool of teachers- the least well-trained and capable with the least professional experience. “The poorer districts have to compete with the wealthy ones for the quality teachers. And teaching itself has to compete with other more profitable career opportunities for capable, intelligent individuals,” he said.

This trend leads to nearly one in three teachers leaving the profession within five years of their start. Teach for America; on the other hand, retains 77 percent of their teachers in the field after their tenure with program.Ultimately, Hentschke said that TFA succeeds by forcing teachers to learn from day one how to lead a classroom. “As opposed to spending so much time in the classroom learning about teaching, TFA forces them to actually teach right away,” he said.


The demands on a new teacher

And so beginning teachers like Sara Garcia continue, hoping against hope that despite the numbers, urban school districts can close the achievement gap. From the time she arrives at school until she leaves, she is working toward that goal in some way. During her geometry and algebra classes that are team-taught, she’s working with a more experienced teacher to improve her teaching methods.

During her special needs block, she breaks math and science down to their smallest components to make concepts clear and comprehensible.“If I can see one kid pick up linear equations or matrices and apply that, then I’ve had a productive day.” Garcia works through her planning period, pulling special needs students out of their electives to work on their math and reading homework. From 2:30- 4:30 p.m., Garcia does voluntary tutoring for her students. She finally gives up on grading and lesson plans around 8 p.m. and heads back to her beachside condo.

When Garcia gets home, often her curiosity gets the best of her. She spends time researching attention deficit disorder (ADD) and different forms of autism that her special needs students have. Among the many teaching tips she’s gotten from her research is giving students with ADD a timer to use during math problems or something to hold in their hand that keeps their attention.

Before bed, Garcia said she often replays the day in her head to assess her triumphs and failures. One moment that sticks with her is when she took a student aside who had all but given up, grades trailing from B’s and C’s to F’s and barely comes to class three times a week, and asked her to come in for tutoring after school. “I asked her if anything was going on at home, but she wouldn’t say a thing.  She’s a stubborn kid,” she said.


Garcia said she simply offered her an open ear anytime she wanted to talk. Garcia’s wide smile signaled her satisfaction and surprise when the girl walked in at the tail end of the tutoring session that day. Garcia said sometimes getting the students in the door is the first step.

 “Success is in the little triumphs I see each day.”





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