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Teach for America: more than just teaching

During their visit, the middle schoolers met with Connecticut College students from Project KBA (Kids, Books, Athletics), a volunteer group of mostly athletes that promotes reading and physical fitness with children 
April 13, 2011

Four years into an assignment with Teach for America in the Bronx, Evan Piekara '07 knows his job is about more than teaching.

"I'm responsible for 60 lives and that is something I don't take lightly," he said.

Piekara, who teaches at I.S. 162, and Rachel Hess '09, who teaches at Bronx Green Middle School, brought their 6th and 7th graders to Connecticut College on April 1 to help strengthen their students' understanding of the importance of continuing their education after high school.

As part of the Teach for America program, whose mission is to provide all children with an excellent education regardless of their economic situation, Piekara and Hess are well aware of the challenges their students face.

Citing statistics regarding the correlation between poverty levels and college enrollment (just half of students in low-income communities will graduate high school by age 18), Piekara talks about the importance of Teach for America's work in bridging the achievement gap. Part of the solution, he says, is extending the bounds of the classroom to show students that possibilities abound.

"Showing these children what college is like will hopefully show them that there are opportunities available to them and that hard work can pay off," he said.

During their visit to Connecticut College (a top producer of Teach for America teachers with more than 50 alumni currently or previously serving), the students had lunch, toured the campus and got a taste of college life. They were welcomed by Martha Merrill '84, dean of admission and financial aid, who quizzed them on what they knew about the College - and their teachers.

The students were thrilled to be part of the campus atmosphere. After lunch they enthusiastically took part in a question and answer session with Connecticut College students who are part of the Posse Scholars program. (The Posse Scholars are multicultural teams that are formed in high school and go on to enroll in top-tier colleges with full-tuition scholarships.) Though the students were initially hesitant, they soon realized that no subject was off-limits. Questions ranged from "What are the hardest classes?" to "Are the dorms co-ed?" and whether or not the College has a basketball team.

Piekara and Hess had wanted to bring their students to campus for quite some time. In the summer of 2010, they saw a way to make it happen.

"We loved the idea and had wanted to do it for a while," said Piekara, who is in his final year at Teach for America. "It wasn't until Fidelity Investments got involved that we were able to pull it off. They helped underwrite the cost and even provided new backpacks for the kids."

Piekara's initial two-year Teach for America commitment ended in 2009, and he chose to continue teaching for two more years. He's sad to see his time come to an end, but he credits his work with the group for shaping the next stage of his life. In the fall he starts graduate school at Georgetown University, where he plans to pursue a master's in business administration.

When asked why he spent four years with Teach for America, rather than the traditional two, Piekara talks honestly about his work.

"My first year I barely felt like I was treading water, but now I feel a little like I'm leaving a legacy by making an impact every day on the lives of my students and community," he said. "It has been the most rewarding time of my life and it is tremendously hard work, but, in the end, it really helped me mature as an individual."

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