Charles Graham Jr.

In June, Charles Graham Jr. will leave his job at an Austin law firm and move almost 2,000 miles to Philadelphia to embark on a new teaching career. Graham, who received his government degree in December, will spend his first summer as a UT alumnus training for Teach For America. According to Teach For America, a program that signs recent college graduates to two-year teaching commitments at underprivileged schools, more of the program’s teachers came from UT than any of the other 630 institutions in 2010. Graham said he is excited to be a part of such a competitive institution, which accepts about 4,500 of its 46,000 applicants. “I always said that I wouldn’t be a teacher,” he said. “When I decided to be a government major, people would ask, ‘What are you going to do, become a government teacher?’ and I always answered no.” Graham is not unusual — one in six of the program’s participants say they never considered education before joining the Teach For America corps. He said he is looking forward to learning about how to improve the nation’s education system and hopes to take his teaching experience with him long after his two-year commitment. “My long-term goal is to work in education policy, and I saw this program as a way to get in the classroom and see some of the problems of the education system firsthand,” he said. “I saw Teach For America as an opportunity to give back and reach future generations.“ Graham plans to attend graduate school after his two-year commitment ends, which some critics of the program argue could be problematic. Some criticize the program because its participants leave the classroom after their commitment is up and pursue other careers, said assistant education professor Julian Heilig. “In its initial conception, it’s a fantastic idea, because they are trying to get high-quality teachers to students that our nation has left behind,” Heilig said. “The problem is that they attract teachers to those schools, but they can’t keep them there.“ Heilig argued the program functions as a “temporary agency” and “perpetuates the cycle” of underqualified teachers in underprivileged schools. “I think the criticisms would melt away if their members would make five-year commitments instead of two, but this is just a stopover for most kids,” he said. A 2008-09 Urban Institute study shows that corps members have positively impacted student achievement as first- and second-year teachers, said program spokeswoman Kaitlin Gastrock. “Our alumni, inspired by their two-year teaching experience, become lifelong leaders in a variety of professional fields in their effort to expand opportunities for kids growing up in low-income communities,” Gastrock said. Etherial Edetan, a UT alumna and current corps member in Atlanta, has taught kindergarten and first grade since joining the program in 2009. In May, she will spend her final days in the classroom but not in the field of education. “I’m going to continue working in education in some kind of way, but I don’t think I can be the strongest advocate of education by staying in the classroom,” she said. “I think I need to go outside of the classroom to make effective improvements.” Graham said he hopes to instill “confidence and a love for learning” into his Philadelphia elementary students. The program will provide him with weeks of training, preparation for his teacher certification test and relocation funds. Then he will be off to his classroom. “I know it’s going to be a hard job, and I think that if I can do this, then I can do anything,” Graham said. “I’m not going to shy away from the challenge. Actually, I’m looking forward to it.”

About 200 Latino students drop out of high school every hour in the U.S., said Sarah Sanchez, UT’s recruitment director for Teach for America, a national organization that commits recent college graduates to serve as teachers in lower-income areas for two years. Four panelists discussed problems in Latino education at the UT Elementary School on Friday, and about 75 people attended. TFA sponsored the forum as part of a series of events the group held last week, including a question-and-answer session, a movie night and a tour of a chartered school system. “The Latino population in our country is growing faster than any other subgroup,” Sanchez said. “We have a really large number of Latinos here, so you can see the Latino education crisis in Texas more.” Charles Graham Jr., a government senior and TFA campus campaign coordinator at UT, said the group planned the week of events to interest students in applying for the 2011 TFA corps before the application deadline on Feb. 4. He said the group also wanted to inform people about the educational achievement gap between students in higher- and lower-income areas. “One in 10 kids from low socioeconomic areas even go into college, and our idea is to teach for all ten,” Graham said. Graham said graduates of the program work to solve the achievement gap even if they do not ultimately become teachers. “Our corps members go on to solve the achievement gap in different areas, whether it’s education policy, investing in education, as well as teaching,” he said. TFA raised its first endowment of $100 million Thursday. TFA spokeswoman Kaitlin Gastrock said the money will fund 2 percent of the organization’s national operating budget. In five to 10 years, the organization plans to increase the number of corps members from 8,200 to 15,000 and the number of communities served from 39 to 60. She said the organization will send members to Fort Worth for the first time this fall. Laura Duran, executive director of the Hispanic Scholarship Consortium, said one of the major problems Latinos seeking education face at the college level is their ability to receive financial aid. “The biggest challenge right now is going to be financial aid and the availability of grants at the state level, potentially later on at the federal level,” she said. Gregory Vincent, UT’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, criticized the state for cutting funds for education rather than the prison system. “Do we want to make a wise investment in communities and schools at a third of the cost that will allow students to graduate from high schools and become productive citizens, or do we want to wait until the school system’s failed them and warehouse them for years on end?” he asked.