Students teach in low-income schools

By Lisa Schulz

In the most poverty-stricken areas of the nation, the opportunity for a good education can be hindered because of low income. In an effort to create change, seven seniors from Columbia will contribute their knowledge to public schools across the country.

The nonprofit organization Teach For America selects high achievers to teach in public schools throughout the U.S. Applicants for the two-year program are chosen annually based on skills such as leadership, motivation and the ability to work with different cultures.

In its third year at Columbia, the Teach For America program chose the following seniors for 2012: dance major Brittany Branson; Alison Divino, humanities, history and social sciences major; interdisciplinary arts major Caro Griffin; English major Rahul Gupta; Blair Mishleau, interdisciplinary arts major and American sign language minor; and fiction writing majors Nikki Muir and Robert Walberg.

The acceptance rate nationwide is approximately 10 percent, and for the third year in a row, Columbia is well above that percentage, said Andrew Whatley, assistant dean of Faculty Advising and LAS Initiatives and associate director of the honors program.

“You look at two things: the students they’re accepting, [who] are very bright, committed, dedicated young people who demonstrated leadership skills throughout their undergraduate careers,” Whatley said. “Secondly, you’d look at the other end, where alumni of Teach For America remain in the classroom teaching and are excellent teachers, and many go on to

administration positions.”

Divino, a rural Kentucky native who first considered the program during her sophomore year, is currently interviewing for schools in the Mississippi Delta area in hopes of teaching reading and language arts. During her three-and-a-half years at Columbia, she was a youth tutor for the Center for Community Arts partnerships, a research assistant for the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in Arts & Media and president and vice president of the Asian Student Organization.

Prior to college, she racked up volunteer hours by tutoring refugees in Southeast Asia before she was aware of her potential candidacy for Teach For America.

“I was always around the children, talking and laughing,” Divino said. “I think that’s when I realized I wanted to work with children for a career. But I didn’t put the pieces together that I wanted to be a teacher until I started tutoring.”

While no degree in education is mandatory, the Teach For America program requires participants to receive additional training in teaching, according to its website.

However, degrees offered by Columbia do not limit the content in core education classes, Whatley said.

“Bringing an art background can only enhance delivery and understanding of those subject matters,” he said.

After volunteering with Teach For America for two years, Michael Lencioni, a 2010 Columbia film & video graduate, now teaches humanities at Curtis Bay Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore.

Lencioni said 100 percent of his focus is on his students, unlike in college where he focused solely on his own work. At Curtis Bay Elementary, he met with a parent who wasn’t able to arrange a conference other than during his third-shift lunch break at 2 a.m. But meeting with parents who are working two or three jobs is not uncommon, he said.

Lencioni laughed when he described his “great” students as a “bag of firecrackers” because of their mixed experiences and high energy.

“In a lot of ways, they are older and wiser than their years based on some of the experiences they’ve been in and the ways they were brought up,” Lencioni said. “But also, they have that childlike ability to look at the world in its simplest terms and just ask the questions that no one seems to be looking at.”

Mishleau, who will be teaching English as a second language in Minneapolis, said that cultural background plays a large role in comprehension.

For instance, literal translations of idioms, like “it’s raining cats and dogs,” could be confusing for non-English speakers, he said.

Divino said that low-income and culturally diverse students have just as much ability to learn as their wealthy counterparts.

“I want all of my students to realize that that’s certainly a myth and that your socioeconomic factors don’t rule you,” she said. “With quality education, good teachers and great relationships, you can succeed, go to college, come back to your community and change your community the way you want to see it changed.”