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Photo by Jean-Christian Bourcart
Ryan Bennet works with a student at East St. John High School in New Orleans. Teach for America members work in low-income, inner-city schools.

Many students graduate from college and head back to the classrooms of America in order to make a difference in children's lives, regardless of their major area of study.

Joining the thousands-strong force known as Teach for America is a "fantastic chance to really be in a position of impact right out of college," said University of Utah graduate Alex Smith, who fulfilled a two-year requirement with the program at an inner-city, low-income, ethnically diverse elementary school in Houston and ended up staying an extra three years.

"I had a belief that school is a central part of kids' and family life," Smith said. "At the center of the school, you can make a profound impact on kids' chances to have a great life."

Smith, now 29, taught a third-grade class that had students ranging in age from 8 to 12 years old, some of them not even at a first-grade reading level, which created significant and diverse challenges in addition to general teaching. He especially enjoyed seeing achievement from those who had perhaps failed before.

"The kids are — at a fundamental level — capable and motivated to learn, but years of not expecting a lot from them and not providing a lot to them puts them far behind," Smith said.

Corps members involved in the Teach for America program are placed in more than 1,000 low-income, inner-city schools in nearly 26 regions of the United States, depending on their strengths and qualifications, following an intense application and interview process that is not necessarily competitive, but selective.

Interested individuals must have a record of leadership ability, graduate with a 2.5 GPA or higher, be a citizen of the United States and have a desire to work hard and therefore make a difference, Teach for America recruitment director Rosemary Rogers said. More information on the program can be found at www.teachforamerica.org.

Participants are selected to exhibit leadership skills to change the prospects of students growing up today and ultimately to effect fundamental change from a variety of sectors, including education, policy, law, business, medicine and the sciences, Rogers said. Following a summer training session, teachers are placed in their schools, given salaries ranging from $25,000 to $44,000, depending on the region, and asked to track their students' progress.

When Greg Erekson, a Brigham Young University English literature grad, began his two-year commitment in St. Louis, he realized his seventh-grade students had ability differences across the board, but most apparent in reading and writing.

"Figuring out how to take that group and help all of them move forward academically was an enormous challenge," he said. "But I was committed to closing the achievement gap."

Like many Teach for America corps members, Erekson has an intrinsic belief that education can transform people's lives, giving them a shot at "the American Dream."

"Regardless of your parents' ZIP code, you can transcend your class in America, and the engine for that sort of social mobility is education," he said.

Erekson, 31, currently works as a financial adviser in Missouri but continues working for the cause of education in his region.

"I didn't plan on being a teacher for my career, and I didn't make it my career, but I felt like that experience helped me to understand what the challenges our country faces are in terms of making sure that everybody can have a good education," he said. "It's a real achievable goal."

Although the circumstances weren't easy for either Smith or Erekson, both said it was a life-changing experience for them and for the students they taught.

"It is extremely hard work, it requires careful thinking, careful planning, caring a lot, and doing that day after day even when, at first, success is not immediate," Smith said. "But I think the rewards are unparalleled than most things that you could spend your time doing."

Many Teach for America alumni go on to lead policy-making decisions at the levels of state and school-board leadership. The program maintains partnerships with graduate schools and business leaders to ensure its members continue in their movement to end educational inequity.

"Entering Teach for America and completing Teach for America will add more options for things you can do next than less," said Smith, who now works as a teacher-trainer and mentor for 45 teachers in more than 30 schools in Texas.

The impetus is that America offers public education to all children, and Smith and Erekson believe that education should be equal in opportunity.

"Teach for America is having a measurable impact in changing the educational outcome for hundreds and hundreds of students," Erekson said. Besides having a positive impact on the students in his classrooms, he came away from the program with transferable skills and qualities, such as problem-solving, communicating and better organization, that he uses in everyday life.

"A lot of it is figuring out how to be successful in a tough environment," he said. "I really believe that we can make sure America can give every child an excellent education. I think that is within reach."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com