August 28, 2008

Teacher Proud to Go Where She’s Needed

By David Harrison [email protected] 777-3523

Monday was not only the first day of school for many students in school districts around the country, it was also the first day of school for the new crop of young Teach For America teachers.

Teachers such as Alexandra Arsura, a graduate of Roanoke County schools and the College of William and Mary who found herself in seventh and eighth grade science classrooms at Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland, Calif.

Teach For America, a roughly 20-year-old program, trains college graduates to be teachers and sends them for two-year teaching stints in some of the most needy schools in the country.

The slumping economy has prompted a record number of college graduates to sign up for the two-year commitment. This year the corps enrolled 3,700 new teachers, roughly 20 percent of the total number of applicants.

Three of the new teachers are from Roanoke. About 30 of them graduated from William and Mary, Arsura said.

The program has sometimes been criticized for sending rookie teachers into difficult assignments for a relatively short period of time, but what they lack in experience they make up in enthusiasm.

And it's clear that Arsura considers her position more than a job. On Monday, after her first day of classes, she talked about it more as a calling.

"These kids aren't in many cases getting the education they deserve," she said. "It's a big problem and we need to do something about it."

Her first day went well, she said, but, she added, "you don't appreciate how much a teacher does for you until you become one."

And she couldn't help but be struck by the differences between Roosevelt and Hidden Valley Middle and Hidden Valley High schools, where she went to school.

Her teachers in Roanoke County showed her PowerPoint presentations.

At Roosevelt, she has one "incredibly old" computer in her classroom. She has no projector and many students who don't speak English who would benefit from matching pictures to words.

"I'm going to have to get creative. I'm going to have to be a really good artist," she said.

She went to a brand-new high school. At Roosevelt, students make do without air conditioning.

Roanoke County schools have roughly 20 students per class in middle and high school. At Roosevelt, she taught a class of 50 students Monday, although that number will probably balance out, she said.

"The school is good about making sure we don't have more than 32 in the classroom," she said.

A sociology major with a minor in marketing, Arsura said she's known since her freshman year that she wanted to join Teach For America. She tutored in a Williamsburg school during college and spent about six weeks training this summer before taking over at Roosevelt.

Now, at 22, she'll be teaching dozens of 12- and 13-year-olds in a 750-student school where most students are minorities and where many of them don't speak English. She earns a starting teacher's salary, roughly $38,000 a year, and lives with three other Oakland teachers.

"Education is definitely something I'm passionate about," she said. "Teaching in a middle-class or high-income school isn't appealing to me. I want to work where I'm needed the most."

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