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Changing lives with Teach for America

Scott Baier | Monday, February 6, 2012

On my first day as a teacher at Audubon Middle School in Los Angeles, I realized that my career trajectory had forever been altered. The career in law I had imagined as an undergrad at Notre Dame was capsized by Xavier, one of my 190 seventh-grade English students who single-handedly changed my understanding of a meaningful career.

Xavier arrived on the first day wearing a tie and walked right up to me and shook my hand. He seemed very eager to participate in class, and when asked to read, he was the first to raise his hand. When he required a lot of help from classmates and was struggling with basic vowel sounds, I realized we needed to evaluate his reading skills. Xavier’s reading assessment revealed that as a seventh grader he was reading at a first grade level.

Xavier’s story is all too common among students growing up in low-income communities. Often, when kids growing up in poverty enter kindergarten, they are already academically behind their wealthier peers. This gap in educational opportunity only widens over time. By the fourth grade, they are three grade levels behind and half won’t graduate from high school. Only one in 10 will attend college and for those lacking a college degree, many doors are firmly shut.

While Xavier was a joy to have in the classroom, he simply didn’t have the skills necessary to be successful in middle school. For years, he had been promoted from grade to grade because he showed up to school every day, endeared himself to teachers and administrators, and his homework was graded for completion rather than mastery. In fact, his aunt — his caregiver — was surprised and saddened to learn that Xavier couldn’t read. Because he had always earned Bs, she assumed he was doing just fine in school. I knew that Xavier was capable of so much — he just needed the right support to get back on track.

At first, Xavier was mad that I had discovered his secret, but after some negotiation, he was attending Saturday tutoring sessions and making incredible progress. By the end of the year he had grown four grade levels in just one year, reading at a fifth grade level. By the end of the next year, he was ready to enter ninth grade reading on grade-level.

Kids like Xavier can’t wait. They only get one shot at a good education. That’s why I joined Teach For America a year out of Notre Dame. After my initial two-year commitment, I taught for another two years and then spent several years working at education nonprofits and in school administration. About three and a half years ago, I had the opportunity to return to Teach For America, this time as the executive director of our St. Louis region. Leading a corps of nearly 200 teachers and a network of close to 350 alumni in the area, I’m able to utilize the leadership skills I built at Notre Dame and in the classroom.

I can think of nothing more impactful a recent college graduate can undertake than shaping the lives and building the brains of some amazing and deserving students. For too long, a kid’s zip code has defined his destiny. But we know that with an all-hands-on-deck approach, educational inequity is a solvable problem.

Knowing that we can close the achievement gap for students like Xavier, I simply can’t walk away from this work. As you think about the role you will play in the broader world upon graduation, I hope you will consider joining me in these efforts. Teach For America’s final application deadline is approaching on Feb. 10 so I urge you to visit www.teachforamerica.org to learn more or start your application.

Scott Baier is a Notre Dame alumnus and the executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis. He can be reached at scott.baier@teachforamerica.org

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.