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Closing the Achievement Gap

by Sabrina Wong

“Get out of my face! Leave me alone!” a south Philadelphia seventh-grade girl in a navy blue school uniform screamed at her teacher. This was the fourth time Alisha had lost her temper this week, leaving her history teacher Sara Strawhun ’08 frustrated and perplexed.

“I don’t expect to read. I don’t know how to read. This is too much,” sighed Devon, a skinny ninth-grader who smelled faintly of cigarettes. Damaris Pereda ’09, a high school teacher in Washington, DC, heard hopelessness in Devon’s weary reply.

Reaching Out

Behavioral problems and a pervasive sense of failure emerge as common classroom problems in America’s low-income communities. Strawhun and Pereda signed up with Teach For America to change that. Teach For America addresses educational inequities by enlisting America’s best and brightest to teach in low-income neighborhoods around the country.

The first APU alum joined Teach for America in 2003. Since then, an average of four alumni per year have joined the corps. This year marks a huge jump, with 12 alumni receiving placements so far. “This generation is very social justice-minded,” said Shino Simons, associate dean of students. “There’s a sense of urgency in eradicating social problems.”

The social consciousness of APU students and the mission of Teach For America make a good fit. “The APU students I’ve interacted with bring a deep-seated determination to help provide hope and a future for people whose life circumstances might otherwise prevent this,” said Josh Dickson, recruitment director and manager for Teach For America’s faith community relations.

Owning One's Education

Naomi Mehl ’08 believes the future of her students depends on their ability to take ownership of their education. “Students have to want change and realize that they can do better,” she said. “So I see success when students call me on Friday night with a question about their homework, or when they willingly come to Saturday school.”

Mehl teaches Spanish to native Spanish speakers at Watts High School in South Central Los Angeles. While her students can speak Spanish, reading and writing in Spanish is both an academic and a psychological struggle. “I want to teach students how to talk about the Chicano experience in an intelligent way,” she said. “I’m teaching them skills to communicate effectively so that people will take them seriously.”

Mehl recently assigned students to write a persuasive letter to a politician in Spanish and was pleased with the results. “They have solutions; they just need to learn how to articulate them,” she said. “Positive change in the community happens when people see their own potential and are empowered with the truth that they are valuable.”

Strawhun helped Alisha realize her own value by not sending her to detention for her latest outburst. Instead, Strawhun invited the troubled girl to have lunch with her. “It wasn’t a punishment; it was an invitation to hang out, to talk, to watch YouTube together,” said Strawhun.

Teacher and student started having lunch on a regular basis. Over time, Alisha began to change. She learned how to calm herself down. She learned how to apologize. She started calling Strawhun, “Mom.” At the end of the year, Strawhun told Alisha how impressed she was by the changes in her behavior. Alisha beamed from ear to ear. She had become a better person and a better student. As a result, her classmates learned more in a less disruptive environment.

Christ-centered Foundation

“APU students bring added value to classrooms because of their grounding in Christ. In troubling situations, they can instill a sense of hope, peace, and understanding,” said Helen Easterling Williams, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education.

Pereda instilled a sense of hope in Devon by telling him, “I expect you to read. I can teach you. We need to work together.” When Devon replied, “Nobody expects that from me. It’s not true. I’m not worth it,” Pereda volunteered to tutor him three days a week.

“The Jesus I know is practical,” said Pereda. “If someone were sick, He would heal him. If people were hungry, He would feed them. He showed His love with His actions and His suffering. As a Christian, my calling is to serve God and serve others. The school system is where I know I can do this,” she said. Devon now likes to read in class. “Reading out loud shows a relationship of trust with me and with other students. He’s starting to believe in himself.”

The transformation of students like Alisha and Devon are a testimony to God’s love for people made in His image. “True reconciliation in community calls for a commitment to justice that treats each member as an image-bearer of God,” said Matthew Visser, director of APU’s Office of Ministry and Service. “Closing the achievement gap can be one way of honoring everyone in a community and seeking reconciliation and justice.”

“APU students bring added value to classrooms because of their grounding in Christ. In troubling situations, they can instill a sense of hope, peace, and understanding.”

Originally published in the Summer '10 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).