When will all students receive an excellent education?

By Billy Crews

One day, all children in this nation will have an opportunity to attain an excellent education.
When is that day?
One day, all children in Mississippi will have an opportunity to attain an excellent education.
When is that day?
One day, all children in Jackson, Greenville, Clarksdale, Tupelo, Meridian, Hattiesburg, Biloxi and your community will have an opportunity to attain an excellent education.
When is that day?
Today, 20 to 30 percent of all Mississippi students do not graduate from high school. Today, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds on average are three to fours years behind in academic achievement. Today, 57 of the state’s 152 school districts are rated as performing at “D” or “F” levels.
Similar low graduation rates, high achievement gaps and school failings exist nationwide.
So when is that day when we will successfully level the playing field in all schools, in all communities, with all kids?
It is time. It is past time. It is possible.
I joined the staff of Teach For America (TFA) in the Mississippi-Arkansas Region 10 weeks ago after 34 years in the private sector. TFA’s vision is to make “One day …” a reality in our nation, our state and our communities.
Let me share what I have learned and am still learning about TFA, while I still have fresh eyes and can provide unfiltered impressions.
TFA in our two-state region recruits and supports almost 600 teachers (also called corps members) in 55 school districts, primarily in the Delta area.
Nationally, TFA has 10,000 corps members teaching in 48 regions, mostly urban and some rural areas.
TFA is like a domestic Peace Corps that attracts some of the “best and brightest” college graduates for an initial two-year commitment to teach in our most challenging school environments.
TFA corps members typically achieve 1.5 to 2 years in student academic growth during a nine-month school year with students historically identified as at-risk.
TFA is a non-profit organization with 70 percent of its funding from individual, corporate and foundation donors.
My observation is that there is no magic to what TFA is attempting to do. Our most basic formula is great teaching. I have never witnessed such idealism, passion, energy and youth as when I met the 300 new corps members who converged on the Delta this summer for the first time.
These young men and women were college majors in the disciplines of science, math, engineering, English, history, pre-med, pre-law, foreign languages, accounting and numerous other rigorous academic areas. They come to our region from great universities in California, Illinois, Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts, Georgia, Michigan, Colorado, Mississippi and all points in between.
TFA is analogous to a significant economic development initiative. We have recruited great talent to our state and are exposing them to southern culture, hospitality and history with an eye toward keeping them in our state and region. We are like a new industry with a continuous 600-person workforce which is growing.
As importantly, TFA is helping establish a culture of achievement. We are complementing and supplementing the local education staff and are helping to transform schools. Our corps members really believe all kids can be successful and have the resolve and commitment to demonstrate that.
Wendy Kopp, as a Princeton senior in 1989, founded TFA 23 years ago with a compelling vision. Ron Nurnberg, Executive Director of TFA Mississippi-Arkansas for the past 17 years, has nurtured and implemented that vision in practical and dynamic ways establishing one of the largest and leading regions in the nation.
Our nearly 600 corps members execute an education model that is transforming lives and has implications and potential in all Mississippi schools for closing the achievement gap, improving graduation rates and increasing college entrance rates.
TFA is a movement to transform educational outcomes and achieve education equity. TFA is an important piece of the education reform puzzle and is demonstrating what Governor Bryant and other policy makers are saying need to be done to improve our human capital and thus our education performance and economy.
One day, all children in this nation will have an opportunity to attain an excellent education.
It is Mississippi’s time to lead the nation. “One day” starts today.
Billy Crews is the former publisher of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. He recently joined Teach For America and is located in its regional office in Oxford. He can be reached at billy.crews@teachforamerica.org.