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Photos by David Mudd/Genesis

A ready harvest

Back to School | Three Teach for America recruits say we don't have to travel far to discover a ripe mission field

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn.-On a Thursday afternoon in early May, the freshmen in Will Fuller's world geography class are describing their ideal country for their end-of-year presentations. The teens fidget and smile at each other as they take turns stepping to the front of the room to explain their utopian country's government structure, majority religion, welfare policies, and ways to fight crime. Each time a presentation ends, students ask tough questions.

The presentations are part of an in-depth project requiring critical thinking and broad application of the concepts the students have learned throughout the year. They reflect the demanding yet encouraging posters papering the walls of Fuller's classroom. (One lists the qualities of a Fulbright Scholar. Another tracks the students' college admission goals.)

The questions, the posters, the students' quiet conduct as they file out when the bell rings-that's what we might expect at an expensive private school. Yet LEAD Academy is located in a small, somewhat rundown brick building in Elizabeth Park, a Nashville neighborhood. Nearly 40 percent of the residents have incomes below the government's poverty line, and the number of single-mother households is more than triple the state average.

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Fuller teaches at LEAD through Teach for America (TFA), the nonprofit organization that sends recent college graduates and young professionals to teach in low-income areas. But he said that over the past two years, he has dealt with few problems-violence, gangs, classroom control-typically associated with low-income schools: "I've been fortunate that I was placed in the charter school system where we're really set up for success." Across town, two of Fuller's fellow TFA recruits have very different tales to tell.

When walking onto the sprawling, state-of-the-art campus of Cane Ridge High School, one striking detail is how expensive everything looks. Another is how many police cars are out front.

Sophomore math teacher Angela Reuter said the school's $5 million price tag has done little to curb the problems inside its walls: "It's hard because people see this as a really nice school, and yet we have kids in gangs, kids walking around in ankle bracelets, police patrolling the hallways." Security tightened that day because of a fight that broke out the day before. Some of Reuter's students have "already cycled through"-meaning they had "cycled" their way from her class to jail and back again. Pregnancy and drugs, she said, are also common problems.

Though Reuter's students are only one grade ahead of Fuller's, their demeanor presents a stark contrast. No one responds to the questions Reuter poses until she prods them several times. She stops frequently to warn a loud group of boys. Toward the end of the lesson she discovers others had been listening to music through ear buds.

Michelle Wright, math teacher at Two Rivers Middle school, said even though her students are younger, she faces many of the same issues: Students tell her they will drop out and not attend high school. Already, many "apathetic" students are repeating grades. "They just get shuffled from one school to another," she said. "They'll have disciplinary problems and get expelled from one school and are then sent to our school for a couple of months until we expel them." The day I visited her classroom, the eighth-grade students were on lockdown because of a fight the previous day.

On the surface, the biggest difference between Fuller's experience with TFA and those of Reuter and Wright seems to be Fuller's charter school, which has more autonomy in terms of discipline and resource allocation. But all three said that's oversimplifying the problem-and taking the pressure off Christians to do the hard work Christ calls them to. The real difference they see is that the kids in the charter school have someone in their lives who loves them.

Fuller said up to 95 percent of his school's students qualify for free and reduced lunch based on their low income level. But students must apply to attend LEAD-a tremendous advantage LEAD has over other schools because it means that every student has at least one adult in his life who cared enough to enroll him in a charter school: "A lot of times, it's not even a parent. It's some other relative or family friend. But it is at least someone."

Compare that experience to Reuter's: Most of her students' families have no interest in hearing from the school. Or to Wright's: She describes a track meet that "was a pretty big event because the team had gone from district to regional to finally the city, and it was the last competition of the year. Out of 14 kids, only one had a parent show up. And this was something that they'd worked for the entire season."

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