Room 306 of Blewett Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri was the lens through which I began to understand the educational inequities our nation faces. I was one of 1,719 new Teach for America AmeriCorps members to begin service in 2003. I was part of a movement that was gaining momentum across America to bring new talent and institutional change to our school systems.
But above all else, I was a teacher of a special education classroom and the oft mentioned educational achievement gap was personified and placed in my hands. For two years, my mission was to empower students to succeed, but it was the perspective I gained from that experience that has fueled my own service journey ever since.
The transforming effect that national service has on people’s lives and those served was on powerful display last weekend as nearly 11,000 Teach for America corps members, alumni, and supporters gathered in Washington D.C. for Teach for America's 20th Annual Summit. This extraordinary event brought together education, government, and nonprofit leaders to discuss achieving Teach for America’s vision that one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
Teach for America CEO and Founder Wendy Kopp told the audience that while the achievement gap remains, the sweeping changes necessary to realize this vision are within our reach, and that we have proved "that we can provide children facing the extra challenges of poverty with an education that is transformational."
Teachers past and present spent the weekend discussing how to reconnect, renew, and rededicate themselves to this vision. The atmosphere was joyous, yet unrelentingly focused on serving the most vulnerable students in our nation though leadership in the classroom and in the policy arena at the federal, state and local level.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told attendees that, "More people than ever are joining national service and bringing innovation to the classrooms of America. We all must support AmeriCorps!" The consensus was clear throughout the summit that incremental change towards closing the achievement gap is simply not good enough. Innovation and visionary leadership would be required to realize the day when all children have access to an education that unlocks their full potential.
Patrick Corvington, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), spoke of the powerful marriage of national service and education reform, describing the intersection of the two as essential to each other's success. These sentiments were echoed by Michael Brown, Co-Founder and CEO of City Year, and Eric Schwarz, Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools, both of whom emphasized the successful formula of bringing human capital through national service to the classrooms of America.
Whether through lengthening the school day with well structured after-school activities, reducing the student to adult ratio in over-burdened classrooms, or encouraging the recruitment of high quality teachers, the role of national service was deemed indispensible to realizing our communal vision of educational equality.
When I was serving with Teach for America, I knew I was part of a much larger AmeriCorps network. But it was only when I came to CNCS to serve as an Eli Segal Fellow that I learned the extent of the support AmeriCorps provides to Teach for America and other education programs. In the past decade alone, AmeriCorps has invested more than $275 million in grants and Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards to support Teach for America and its members.
While Teach for America is the largest single sponsor of AmeriCorps members – more than 8,000 last year alone – it is just one of hundreds of AmeriCorps grantees aimed at helping children and youth succeed in school. The focus on improving educational outcomes will be even stronger under the new Strategic Plan adopted by CNCS earlier this month.
Educating the next generation is not just a job for teachers and parents, but for all of us. That was the message of Grammy Award winner and Teach for America board member John Legend, who closed the summit with a musical performance of Shine, a song he wrote for the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” During the song, Legend told the audience that, "Ordinary people can be the hero,” but it was safe to say that everyone present was already aware of that. Through teaching, tutoring, mentoring and volunteering in other ways, ordinary people are making an extraordinary difference in the lives of our children – and the future of our nation.
Will Chrysanthos is the Eli Segal Fellow at the Corporation for National and Community Service.