Catcher in the River 

Teacher Lina Shanley wants to change things. is Teach for America the way to do it?

Robin slides up from her chair at the time-out desk to pull tubes of lipstick and mascara out of her back pocket. It's second period, and Ms. Shanley's sixth- to eighth-grade special education class at Oakland's Madison Middle School is now seven kids short. Four never showed. Another one got kicked out. A long-haired girl got herself referred to the principal when she socked Shawn in the stomach. And then there's Robin, who earned her time-out for screaming at the boy behind her.

Ms. Shanley faces the remaining ten students and repeats her question. "We're making up laws for the world," she says. "If you could make any ten laws, what would they be?"

Like the bass drum in a brass band, an African-American student answers in a steady undertone: "Stop-nigger-beatings-stop-nigger-beatings-stop-nigger-beatings." Ms. Shanley writes his response on the board as "#4: Stop unfair police." It falls underneath "#3: Stop selling drugs" and above "#5: Stop violence."

The third girl in the second row pulls a bag of Chocolate Kisses from behind the Diet Coke on her desk and doles them out selectively. Robin doesn't get one, and in response to the dis, she starts a loud conversation with her long-haired friend, who is loitering outside the classroom and antagonizing her classmates rather than heading down to the principal's office.

Ms. Shanley puts her chalk down and folds her arms. She has not raised her voice. Not when the intercom broke into her class just as the momentum rose behind her reading lesson. Not any of the eleven times a student walked in tardy during first period. Not even when Alberto claimed he'd never received his daily assignment sheet. ("You know what that means, Alberto? That you've been late or absent every day this month.") Tonight, when she tells her boyfriend Andrei about her day, she will raise her right fist and say: "Rage." Forcefully. Once. But now as she tries to regain control of her class, her voice drops as she says, "We are having a complete breakdown."

Shanley is part of a corps of teachers hired and placed into classrooms in the country's most needy regions through a program called Teach for America. The Bay Area hosts 120 Teach for America teachers, an estimated forty or fifty of whom work in Oakland, according to Oakland program director Mellea Bowman. She estimates Oakland may take on as many as thirty new teachers from the program in the fall. Also, following Oakland's lead, San Francisco will place thirty for the first time next year.

The concept behind Teach for America is simple: Take one idealistic and energetic recent college graduate who is willing to make a two-year commitment. Add five weeks of summer training, nearly $10,000 in school-loan forgiveness, ongoing teacher support, and a hefty dose of the group's vision for social equity -- and you get an instant teacher.

During the twelve years since its inception, Teach for America has placed more than 8,000 new graduates, according to spokesperson Melissa Golden. In that time, it has more than tripled in size from 504 new teachers in 1990 to an expected 1,700 in the fall of 2002. The program has been likened to a domestic peace corps, and many graduate schools look favorably on candidates who have participated. President Bush has called for a 56 percent increase in funding for Americorps, the national service program that provides a significant amount of Teach for America's funding, and he has strongly plugged the program as part of the answer to the country's national teacher shortage.

But despite such high-profile praise, some education experts have expressed concerns that the program is simply a stop-gap measure, which doesn't help to solve the long-term problems in education. The lowest-level kids need the highest level teachers, they say, not newbies likely to leave after a short two-year commitment.

Lina Shanley -- who will complete her commitment in June -- says when she signed up for Teach for America, she had no idea what she was getting into. The program recruited her directly from Whitman, a small liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington. Before the summer of 2000, Shanley had never lived in an urban area. She had never been to Oakland. And she had never considered being a teacher.

"I was a history major. I knew that I wanted to make a difference. Then I got this mass e-mail from my career center with a Teach for America application," she says. The words on the organization's Web site spoke to her: You want to change things.

Shanley is an idealist with a passion for social justice. She lived in Zimbabwe for a semester abroad, where she was exposed to social inequities on a global scale. The trip inspired her to do her part locally, and Teach for America offered just the right vision: One day, all students will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. So she went through the rigorous application process -- in years past, 75 percent of Teach for America applicants have been turned away -- hoping she would land a position as a high school science teacher. "On the application there was a question asking if I would be willing to teach special education," Shanley said. "I went back and forth, then said I'd be willing to." A month later, Shanley received her assignment: middle school special education in Oakland.

Third period is the first time in Shanley's day when she can sit down, go to the bathroom, or drink the cold coffee which has been on her desk since 8 a.m. -- if she isn't called to fill in for an absent teacher. But before she can take a moment for herself today, Shanley must take care of second period's discipline problems. After releasing Robin from the time-out desk, she steps outside to speak with the long-haired girl. "I had to refer you to the principal because it's against school policy to hit a student," she says.

The girl thrusts her elbows onto her knees and leans forward in her chair so that her eyes are level with Shanley's waist. "But he hit me first," she says. "What would you do if someone hit you?"

Shanley knows discipline doesn't hold much weight with the students at Madison. "We try not to marshmallow on the discipline policy," she says as she finishes with the girl and retreats into the lounge. "But the year before I came, this school had 1,200 suspensions. Last year it had 90 suspensions. What can you tell kids when they can do the same things a year later and not get in trouble for them?"

The Academic Performance Index, which ranks California public schools from one to ten based on standardized test scores, gave Madison a one for the 2000-01 school year, the lowest ranking. Seventy-nine percent of Madison students read below the national reading average. Eighty-seven percent fall below the national average in math. On the whole, Madison is classed by the state as "well below average" -- just the kind of school that Teach for America targets.

Critics of the program question how effective neophytes are in such an environment. "Our lowest-performing students need our strongest teachers," says Zaretta Hammond, co-director of the Teacher Academy at the Bay Area Coalition of Essential Schools. BayCES is an education reform organization that works to improve teachers' professional development and classroom preparedness. In Hammond's view, five weeks' training falls far short when it comes to getting teachers ready to instruct the nation's most challenging students.

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