‘You can’t un-see it’

Teach for America corps looking to keep more of its teachers in high-poverty schools

jself@thestate.comDecember 4, 2013 

  • Teach for America in SC South Carolina’s Teach for America organization wants to recruit more teacher-members who are minorities, have ties to the state and teach science, technology, engineering and math – also called STEM subjects. The nonprofit’s status on reaching those goals:


    Recruits 2011 2012 2013 2014 goals
    S.C. ties 7% 10% 9% 15%
    Minorities 18% 23% 22% 25%
    STEM teachers 25% 30% 37% 40%
    Pell grant recipients 14% 26% 32% 30%


    Source: Teach for America South Carolina

— Cait Clark found herself at a crossroads when she moved to Marlboro County to teach, trading her life in Philadelphia as a recent college graduate for one nine hours away where she knew no one.

“At that point I was like, ‘Well, I can either make it miserable, or I can choose my attitude and choose my outlook and make it something great,’ ” said Clark, a 23-year-old first-grade teacher at Bennettsville Primary School.

Clark started an afternoon reading program at the local library and launched the Marlboro Million Words Campaign, challenging the community to read a million words. Now, she is working with a nonprofit to get pajamas and new books for every child in her school by March.

Clark is one of 197 Teach for America corps member-teachers working in 71 schools in 14 S.C. school districts in the state’s high-poverty areas.

The program recruits recent college grads and professionals to spend two years teaching in high-poverty areas that have difficulty recruiting quality teachers.

Having launched its S.C. efforts in 2011 with 30 teachers, the national nonprofit now has placed teachers in 11 counties in the Pee Dee, Orangeburg and Lowcountry regions and is looking to expand into more S.C. counties. In South Carolina, Teach for America operates on a $2.2 million budget that it uses to recruit, train, and professionally develop teachers. Forty-five percent of that money comes from the state, 27 percent from individuals, foundations and corporate donors, 18 percent from AmeriCorps, and 10 percent from school districts, said Becky O’Neill, managing director of regional communications for the nonprofit.

In return for teaching two years in high-poverty areas, Teach for America volunteers get education awards worth more than $5,000 for each year of service, O’Neill said. Those grants can be used to pay for existing college loans or new education expenses.

And after two years?

Getting more teachers to remain in the communities where they teach after their two-year commitment ends, instead of leaving, is a Teach for America objective, said Josh Bell, executive director of the program’s S.C. arm.

The first group of Teach for America corps members in South Carolina finished the program at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Of those, 37 percent decided to stay in the classroom and 46 percent stayed in South Carolina.

Clark’s enthusiasm for teaching and desire to stay in Bennettsville are exactly the commitments that Teach for America hopes corps members will have when they finish their two years of service, said Bell.

How to keep teachers like Clark, who is paid the same salary and benefits as other new teachers, engaged and committed is part of the challenge to improving education in economically depressed areas, Bell said. Some school districts are “giving leadership opportunities to Teach for America alums and figuring out what is going to keep (those teachers) there,” he added.

In starting an after-school reading program and challenging the community to read more, Clark has carved out leadership roles for herself.

Leadership roles, such as serving on committees, challenge teachers, who then “push themselves to be better and their view is broadened” Clark said. “The more you feel like you are involved and a part of something, the more likely you are to remain in a particular area.”

‘You can’t unsee it’

Elana Jaret, a Teach for America corps member at Sanders Clyde Creative Arts School, a high-poverty school in Charleston, started her service with similar ambition.

Jaret, 24, started the school’s first eighth-grade algebra 1 class and pushed her math students to join, meeting with them on weekends to study.

Taking algebra, she tells her students, will improve their chances of getting accepted to Charleston’s prestigious Academic Magnet High School or doing advanced math in high school, increasing their chances of doing well in college.

Both Clark and Jaret plan on staying put when they complete their two-year stint with Teach for America.

“Teach for America has shown me what is possible,” said Jaret, a Miami native who said she has no plans to move away from Sanders Clyde, located near America Street in Charleston’s upper eastside neighborhood. “Once you’ve seen what’s possible, you can’t unsee it.”

Clark said she has embraced Marlboro County, Bennettsville Primary and her church, and the experience has changed her.

“I could honestly see myself staying here permanently. I’ve made so many connections. This feels so homey,” said Clark, who moved into a house with other corps members in Bennettsville, and says she feels a “sense of belonging.”

Bennettsville principal Clifton Harrington said Clark has the quality “that any school administrator would love to have in a teacher or a staff member.”

“When I see a teacher involved to the extent that Ms. Clark is involved, it makes me realize that it is more than just a profession for that teacher. It’s a true sign of being a community servant, someone that is willing to go beyond the call of duty.”

Teach for America in SC

South Carolina’s Teach for America organization wants to recruit more teacher-members who are minorities, have ties to the state and teach science, technology, engineering and math – also called STEM subjects. The nonprofit’s status on reaching those goals:

Recruits 2011 2012 2013 2014 goals
S.C. ties 7% 10% 9% 15%
Minorities 18% 23% 22% 25%
STEM teachers 25% 30% 37% 40%
Pell grant recipients 14% 26% 32% 30%

Source: Teach for America South Carolina

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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