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ND among top schools for service program

Joseph McMahon | Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Notre Dame, a university that strives for academic excellence and social serivice, remains one of the top feeder schools for post-graduate service leader Teach for America.

The national organization works to create future leaders and eliminate educational inequalities between low-income communities and the rest of the nation by recruiting college graduates to teach in urban and rural schools for a minimum of two years.

Last year 2,900 recent college graduates – including 44 Notre Dame students – were placed in classrooms across the country through the program.

“People are taking much more interest in making a difference, especially in a society where New Orleans still remains in ruins, millions of people go without medical insurance and 38 percent of fourth graders cannot read at the basic level,” said junior LuLu Meraz, one of four students who are working this year as campus coordinators for Teach for America.

“The younger generation is looking for a way to better the country and make an enduring impact that can dramatically affect things on a systematic and fundamental level, and Teach for America is a perfect opportunity to do so,” she said.

And Notre Dame students have answered that call to service with great enthusiasm in past years, said Patrick Herrel, director of the Lake Michigan recruitment team for Teach for America.

“Notre Dame’s Catholic culture and the commitment to social justice that it instills have always created a strong sense of obligation in the students,” Herrel said.

He said Notre Dame’s 44-teacher contribution last year was the fourth largest from any single school – and the three schools that produced more volunteers than the University at least tripled Notre Dame in the size of their student bodies.

“Wendy Kopp, the CEO and founder of Teach for America, has been so impressed by the work Notre Dame students have done that she is actually [coming] to the University on Oct. 9 to host a student leader reception,” Herrel said. “Really, the work the University has done through things like the Center for Social Concerns has made Notre Dame one of Teach for America’s top recruiting schools.”

Herrel said the Lake Michigan recruitment team is hoping to recruit 60-70 Notre Dame seniors for the program this year.

“One of our major goals is to increase our Notre Dame numbers,” Herrel said. “Notre Dame students have always shown a great commitment to giving the children a quality education. And it is for that reason that they are always in demand.”

Meraz said the program looks for “outstanding college seniors who have demonstrated strong leadership in all areas, possess strong critical thinking skills and have maintained a GPA of at least 2.5.”

After completing their two-year contract with Teach for America, past recruits have gone on to careers in and out of the classroom. Currently, there are more than 12,000 TFA graduates working all over the country in fields ranging from medicine to business to law, Herrel said.

Sixty-five percent of former program participants choose to stay in education, with many opting to become teachers. Some, however, attempt to further address education problems as principals or school chancellors, he said.

One Notre Dame graduate and former TFA teacher, Jim O’Conner, recently established a Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school in Chicago. KIPP is a national network of free college-preparatory public schools in under-resourced communities throughout the United States, according to its Web site.

TFA teachers that choose a different career path than education have different options available to them, including the possibility of returning to school for an advanced degree at a lower cost – a result of their work with Teach for America.

The Notre Dame Law School, for example, will give a $5,000 per year scholarship to any former TFA teacher.

But for most students that choose to sign up for the two-year commitment, the motivation is not monetary compensation.

Teach for America is an opportunity to help out in some of the poorest, most downtrodden areas of the country.

Senior Matt Gibson, another TFA campus coordinator, said he needed only to look in Notre Dame’s own backyard to realize something had to be done about underprivileged schools. Gibson said 96 percent of students at Perley Elementary School on Eddy Street qualify for free lunch and only half of fourth graders passed state exams in math and reading.

“Many of the students that attend Notre Dame went to great public schools or private schools,” he said. “For students that grow up in low-income communities, going to a school like Notre Dame is not possible because of the poor education they will receive.”

Teach for America, he said, is “a part of Notre Dame’s call to service that resonates with us all. We can and should make a difference by helping to correct America’s greatest injustice.”