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Getting religion

Education | Secular groups like Teach for America are finding fruitful partnerships with faith communities

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

When Tiffany Moore's parents moved from Los Angeles for better schools and a safer community, Moore left her cousins in the schools she left behind. As she grew up and saw her own family's education gap widen-she looked ahead to college while her cousins struggled with reading and writing-she decided one day she would go back to Los Angeles and right this wrong.

So she chose her profession at the age of 11-a teacher. In 10th grade, she set her sights on principal, so she shadowed her school principal and sat with him at lunch, telling him she wanted to teach in an inner-city school where she could give students like her cousins the education she had.

He told her about Teach for America, an organization that chooses an elite group of graduates and trains them to close the achievement gap in inner-city schools. Moore knew it was exactly what she wanted to do. She went to Azusa Pacific University, studied history and elementary middle-school education, and applied to just one program after graduation-Teach for America. Now she has moved back to Los Angeles as a TFA corps member teaching at Johnnie Cochran Middle School.

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Moore, age 25, is exactly the kind of person TFA recruits: motivated, high-achieving, and passionate about closing the education gap. But she has another trait that TFA-and other secular education organizations-are finding many of their most dedicated teachers share: faith.

The daughter of two ministers, Moore grew up hearing her mom preach on the life of Jesus and learning two things: Jesus was a servant to the poor and marginalized, and He fought against injustice. "The achievement gap is a disgrace and it's one of the largest injustices," Moore says. "It may sound corny, but I feel like if Jesus was still alive today and He was a teacher, I feel like He would be teaching in our community." She stops herself and laughs at her own indignation: "Girl, you're riled up!"

But a substantial number of TFA's corps members agree. Nicole Baker Fulgham, TFA's vice president of community faith relations, said TFA began directly recruiting from religious groups in 2007 once internal surveys showed that many of their corps members came from faith communities. Since then, TFA's founder and president, Wendy Kopp, has been a keynote speaker at Bill Hybels' Willow Creek Leadership Summit. TFA has formed national partnerships with Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ, Hillel (a Jewish campus organization), and the Muslim Student Association.

TFA leaders have crossed the country giving presentations for the White House Faith Based Initiative, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Baptist Convention and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. It has formed partnerships with seminaries and recruits at religious colleges.

TFA now finds that nearly 50 percent of its incoming corps members are involved in a church or other faith community, and the majority of that group cites faith as a motivating factor for joining TFA.

The group is careful to maintain the boundaries of church and state-"At the end of the day, they're public-school teachers," Fulgham said-but that's where some of TFA's networking helps public-school teachers find religious outlets outside the classroom.

For instance, TFA has begun pilot projects in Los Angeles and Houston to partner with Young Life, an organiza­tion that helps Christian adults build relationships with adolescents. TFA recruits from Young Life's college leaders, and Young Life draws from TFA's corps members to find Young Life volunteers. It's a natural fit, said Josh Griffin, associate director of field initiatives for Young Life.

"Young Life works because adults who are believers invest time and energy in the lives of kids," said Griffin. This can be anything from cheering at a school play to attending a sports game to talking over a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Teachers have a head start in building relationships since they're already involved and respected figures: "They know kids, kids know them." And if faith motivates them to pursue a program like Teach for America, they're often looking for an outlet outside the classroom to more explicitly share that faith, said Griffin: "It's a short step then to something like Young Life."

Teach for America isn't the only secular organization drawing on the faith community. Public-private educational partnerships are taking place across the country-training inner-city teachers, teaching high-school students, and even running charter schools:

• For four years now, Stevenson High School, a public high school in Lincolnshire, Ill., has allowed Trinity International University's education students to observe high-school teachers' classrooms and do under­graduate student teaching. Last year, the high school's philosophy teacher asked if his honors students could get dual credit for taking one of TIU's philosophy courses. Now, 28 public high-school students are also visiting students at TIU, and TIU is hoping to expand the partnership so that its professors can guest-lecture at the high school.

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