This year, 70 members of USC’s class of 2013 opted to teach for two years in low-income school districts across the country through Teach for America. USC is now the second largest contributor to the program in the country, according to rankings released last week.
“USC has a perfect storm for Teach for America corps members,” USC Recruitment Manager Carrington Bester said. “It’s already one of America’s top institutions, and then you add that they are being educated in South Central Los Angeles, one of the poorest communities in the state. You have this interesting dichotomy of wealth and privilege and academia and surrounded by kids who are just blocks away who will never be able to enroll in ’SC for no other reason than their zip code and tax bracket.”
Throughout Teach For America’s 23-year history, more than 465 USC alumni have taught as corps members, and about 5 percent of USC’s 2013 graduating class applied to the program. USC has ranked as a top contributing university for the past six years.
“Students are interested in playing a role in the movement to reform,” Shawnee Cohn, manager of regional communications for Teach for America, said. “Over 60 million children grow up in poverty, a majority not getting the education they deserve. Where the child is born changes their educational destiny. I think the ranking is a testament to the fact that [USC] students are really looking to have an immediate impact on future generations.”
More than 57,000 people in total applied to Teach For America this past year, and 5,200 were accepted to work as corps members for at least two years. Corps members are full-time employees at high-needs schools.
“There is no ideal applicant except for one that believes they can make an impact and really enjoy leadership and a challenge,” Bester said. “We recognize that the problem is so complex that we literally only want the best and brightest and nothing less. We seek to engage young people who are going to make a transformative impact around the world and are really making sure they’re making that impact in the classroom and the life of kids.”
The application process involves a written statement, several rounds of interviews and the creation of sample lesson plans. They receive one-on-one coaching through an instructional adviser. Two-thirds of Teach For America alumni work in the educational field at the conclusion of their two-year contract.
Teach For America accepts students from across all majors. Rikiesha Pierce, an alumna who majored in sociology at USC and began her first year with Teach for America this fall, said her major relates to her work as a teacher, even though she teaches other subjects.
“Sociology is not directly related to teaching but it does help me understand my surroundings,” Pierce said. “Having the sociological environment helps me understand the people that I interact with. I am able to view my community from a sociological lens, which gives me an advantage.”
Pierce is teaching third and fourth grade self-contained special education students. She said she never considered teaching as a career, though she volunteered at schools in Downtown Los Angeles before considering joining Teach for America. The pull of the highly competitive program, Pierce said, is that it gives corps members the opportunity to get paid to positively impact underserved communities.
“She painted a picture of the opportunity to give back in one of the most real ways, being on the front lines of the education,” Pierce said.
Founded in 1990, Teach for America’s goal is to end education inequity. Today, more than 11,000 corps members teach in rural and urban areas throughout the country.
Erik White, a business entrepreneurship and Spanish double major who graduated in 2013, said he identifies with the children he now teaches.
“I grew up in a single-parent household in a low-income community,” White said. “I always thought that education was a place to do well, no matter what my situation might be like — it’s a great equalizer. Even though these kids might have the same potential that someone saw in me, no one is there to see that. The kids will have at least one more advocate, one more person who knows what they can achieve and knows that they can do that.”
White teaches at Camino Nuevo High School, a new charter school minutes from the USC campus.
“The first day of teaching is very intense,” he said. “It’s a lot of learning on the go. I’m trying things for the first time. It might go well, it might go badly.”
Because this is the school’s first year, there is no established curriculum or lesson plans. Therefore, White has more personal control over the education of his students.
White says he plans to stay on as a teacher at Camino Nuevo for at least four years.
“I want to see my freshmen this year go to college,” he said. “Even if I don’t do education forever, given my socio-economic background, I understand.”
Pierce said that she sees a common thread throughout the students that entered the corps.
“The people that I know from USC who went on with Teach For America were the most active people on campus in terms of service and leadership in the community,” Pierce said. “These are the people that want to innovate and invigorate in societies and communities.”