TFA Sparks Alum's School Initiative
Published: Monday, January 14, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 01:01
As my 10-year college reunion approaches, I think back on my days at Georgetown with gratitude. As a proud graduate of the Class of 2003, I am thankful for the path those four years put me on. Joining Teach For America gave me a chance to make a difference right after graduation and allowed me to pursue my passion for social justice.
When I came to the Hilltop, I wanted to become a social worker. I studied psychology and Justice and Peace Studies. As a freshman, I began volunteering at a D.C. public school through an AmeriCorps program called Heads Up. I worked at the school throughout my four years in college and witnessed the disparity between the world-class education I received at Georgetown and the poor ones my students received at a school located just blocks from the Capitol. I started to realize that the most influential social change happens in schools, where students spend the majority of their time. All of this led me to consider teaching as a career.
I heard about Teach For America when a former professor, Fr. Ray Kemp, invited Kaya Henderson, a member of Teach For America’s 1992 corps who later became chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, to speak to our class. Kaya’s compelling story and the mission and purpose of Teach For America resonated deeply with me.
The following fall, I joined the corps and began teaching at O.S. Hubbard Elementary in San Jose, Calif. While I learned a great deal there, I longed to see a high-performing school making real changes for students from low-income communities. I found just that when I transferred to Ralph J. Bunche Elementary School in Compton, Calif. As part of a team of committed, passionate educators — including several Teach For America corps members and alumni — I saw the school transform and students’ test results rise through the roof. In 2006, Bunche Elementary became the first school in Compton’s history to be honored with a California Distinguished School award.
Despite our students’ incredible learning gains at Bunche, I was concerned that they might advance to middle schools that would not build on this growth. I wondered how much more our students could excel if their education were better designed from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of college.
Around this time, I met another Teach For America alumnus, Ryan Hill, who had founded the highly regarded Knowledge Is Power Program school in Newark, N.J. KIPP, a national network of charter schools, had a proven model for preparing kids for college and beyond. Georgetown recently partnered with KIPP, agreeing to provide the necessary academic and financial support to help students from the program obtain college degrees. Inspired by KIPP’s work in Newark and Ryan’s vision, I decided to start Newark’s first KIPP elementary school, SPARK Academy, in the summer of 2009.
In its fourth year of operation, SPARK Academy currently has 418 students between kindergarten and third grade. Most of our students receive free or subsidized lunches. Almost all are black or Latino. At SPARK, the goal is to ensure that its fourth graders head to middle school as prepared and confident learners. Last year, 90 percent of our students were reading at or above grade level. The connection to Teach For America continues here as well, with nearly 60 percent of our teachers at SPARK Academy being corps members or alumni.
My students back in D.C. had limitless potential but were educationally restrained by their zip codes. I see that same potential in my students at SPARK, who have the opportunity to succeed academically — despite the history of inequitable access to education in their areas — because of incredible teachers. Their relentless hard work ensures that our students will go to college — and hopefully, some will even apply to Georgetown. The partnership between KIPP and Georgetown to increase college completion rates of KIPP students at Georgetown will play a huge role in helping our scholars spark the change they wish to see in their communities and, one day, the world.
Teach For America allows its corps members to work towards the more just society that our Georgetown education calls us all to embrace.
Joanna Belcher (COL ’03) is the founder and school leader of SPARK Academy Charter School and a Teach for America Corps alumnus.