TIME Education

Teach For America Deserves Credit for Improving New Orleans Schools

My “inexperienced” teachers planted notions of college in my head and held me, and themselves, up to a high standard.

After Hurricane Katrina, I started at a new middle school called KIPP Central City, one of many charter schools that has opened in New Orleans. The entire KIPP environment (KIPP stands for the Knowledge is Power Program) focuses on getting students to and through college. When I first heard that goal, it felt insane yet intriguing.

My journey continued at New Orleans’ KIPP Renaissance High School, where I am a junior. Like my middle school, KIPP Renaissance consistently hired teachers who were white, young, and fresh out of college. Nearly half of the teachers had been trained by Teach For America. TFA arrived in New Orleans in 1990, and presently the program’s participants or graduates work with at least one in five students in the city. TFA teachers’ leadership, critical thinking, and well-planned lessons helped improve the education in New Orleans for many students after Hurricane Katrina. Their drive to educate every single child is refreshing and dignifying.

Ms. Miller, one of my English teachers at KIPP Renaissance, is the epitome of an awe-inspiring teacher who sparks a light in the children she teaches. A graduate of Teach For America, she insists on everyone being actively engaged in class by answering and asking questions. She also sees the best in everyone. Her words of wisdom and nurturing spirit made passing the standardized exam required at the end of the course much more realistic for me. She is more than a teacher, she is like our second mom. I have never had a relationship like that with a teacher.

TFA critics oppose the idea of having so many fresh, white teachers in the classroom. They argue that TFA’s five-week summer training program is insufficient to prepare any new teacher, and is therefore unjust for public school students who should have nothing less than fully qualified and experienced teachers. However, in my view these “inexperienced” teachers manage to uphold a high standard, not only amongst themselves but to their students as well.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, I attended Holy Ghost Catholic School. It was strict on uniforms and discipline. However, many of my teachers at Holy Ghost seemed disinterested in not only teaching, but being at school. The majority of my teachers were middle-aged African Americans and a minority were nuns who taught religion. The notion of college was nowhere implanted in my head. The relationships with my teachers here were totally different than the ones I have at KIPP. Looking back, I think that the school was not doing enough to prepare us for advanced work. For instance, every year we had to color a picture of Saint Katharine Drexel. The students who colored the best portrait would be recognized over the intercom. I won all three years—winning was everything then. When I arrived at KIPP, I did not know that coloring pictures would not be crucial in receiving a high school diploma or college degree.

Nevertheless, Holy Ghost helped me understand the connection between schools and community. Some of my teachers there also helped me become more self-sufficient, both in and out of school. I developed a deep sense of integrity and commitment at Holy Ghost that the teachers at KIPP further nurtured.

Students in New Orleans are now prospering and receiving a more high-quality education. Personally, I feel more fearless than ever when attacking challenges. The New Orleans education system is rising, and much of the credit should be given to these ambitious new teachers.

Brianisha Frith, 16, is a junior at KIPP Renaissance High School. This essay is part of a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and high school students at Bards Early College in New Orleans.

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