May 4, 2010

Offering experience and engagement, teaching programs attract students

From the Mississippi Delta to local Chicago neighborhoods, Teach for America (TFA) and the Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) will send University students to schools across the country next year.

Programs like TFA and UTEP have lately become popular options for U of C graduates seeking hands-on work experience before entering the job world or graduate school, which some participants have credited to an increased interest in civic engagement.

Of 178 Teach for America applicants, 29 University students have accepted positions in Teach for America’s two-year program, up from 19 last year. TFA sends recent graduates to low-income schools, teaching in a range of areas. Students become full-time teachers in these school districts, observing the educational gap firsthand.

According to Recruitment Associate Alyse Lattanzi, Teach for America actively recruits across 400 college campuses, including at the U of C. “We know that the high caliber of students from the University have an incredible opportunity to make an impact in the classroom after graduation,” Lattanzi said.

UTEP, a University masters program, has grown in popularity for students seeking teaching certification and firsthand experience in urban schools. Chicago UTEP Director Kavita Kapadia Matsko attributes the program’s growth “to an increased awareness of the complexity and challenges associated with effective teaching in urban settings.”

“Both UTEP and TFA are committed to preparing teachers for urban schools, which aligns well with the social justice orientation that so many of our University students exemplify,” Matsko said.

A federal aid grant from the U.S. Department of Education has allowed for the expansion of the University’s UTEP program. The grant will provide a living stipend for teachers.

“The grant will help us strengthen our curriculum to align with the needs of Chicago Public Schools and expand programming to include high-school math and biology preparation,” Matsko said.

For students like fourth-year Ryan Mills, TFA offers the chance to tackle the issues studied inside the University’s classrooms in the real world. After studying poverty and educational issues, Mills felt “a desire to put into practice what I’ve studied.” Mills majored in Law, Letters, and Society and minored in Human Rights and plans to teach secondary math in the Missippi Delta region next year.

Mills named initiatives like the Neighborhood Schools Program as the inspiration for many students to continue on into educational fields. “The issues that you read and study about are not things happening far away. It’s something happening in our own backyard,” he said.

Graduating third-year Political Science and Latin American Studies double-major Mark Redmond said the University’s atmosphere makes these service programs attractive. “There’s a really strong feeling of [students] wanting to get involved in public service somehow,” he said. “TFA is looking for individuals who have been challenged in the past.” He will teach high- school biology in Phoenix, AZ, next year for TFA.

Fourth-year Kimberlee Pelter majored in Public Policy, specializing in education and race. The University’s location on the South Side led Pelter to seek a teaching job. “We are an island, surrounded by low income neighborhoods,” Pelter said. “That’s our context.”

In light of the poor job market, some students view these programs as a means to determine and further their future careers. “Education will let me see if I want to work directly with the people who are experiencing poverty,” Pelter said. She plans to use the program to decide in what capacity, whether first-hand or a legislative view, she’d like to be involved in the educational process.

Other students, like Mills, plan to attend graduate schools following the two-year program. The University of Chicago Law School is one of many graduate schools that offers scholarships to TFA alumni.