UI in top 5 of schools sending grads to Teach for America

UI in top 5 of schools sending grads to Teach for America

SAVOY – When she graduated with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology last month with a 4.0 grade-point average and Bronze Tablet, Chelsey Kallembach of Savoy had her pick of graduate schools.

But Kallembach, 23, doesn't want just to make the grade; she wants to change the world in a greater way.

So Kallembach set aside her graduate-school acceptance letters and applied for the nonprofit organization Teach for America. It aims to address educational inequality by recruiting top-of-their-class, recent college graduates to teach in low-income schools around the nation.

From the University of Illinois alone, more than 60 graduates joined the group this year. According to spokeswoman Eva Boster, that puts the UI in the top five of the more than 400 colleges sending students to the organization.

Kallembach said the organization "plays into that sense of competition that we've all been raised into. I felt it in high school," she said. "You have to get the highest ACT score; you have to be involved in the most clubs; you have to get the best grades. And then you do the same thing in college for internships, for jobs, for grad school. So, I think that's definitely a huge part of" the reason why people are applying.

She said a second reason is more in tune with people wanting to help other people. "I feel like a lot of us are idealistic," she said. "It plays into that wanting to really help people, wanting to really effect change and wanting to really make a difference in someone else's life."

But Teach for America wasn't always Kallembach's goal.

She said she had never heard of it before last fall when she received a random e-mail from a girl she didn't know, asking if she'd like to sit down with a recruiter to learn more about Teach for America.

"I remember leaving that day we met ... thinking, 'I'm going to be teaching for the next two years,'" Kallembach said. "The more I learned, the more I liked. The more I liked, the more confident I got about making the decision to apply. There was just something that hit me so hard."

Perhaps the thing that hit Kallembach most was that there were children and teenagers who weren't receiving the same education she received.

"I got a fantastic education," she said. "Giving that back to someone is a huge part of my motivation to do this."

Kallembach will be placed in a low-income school to teach high school science, most likely biology, in the eastern North Carolina region. She's not sure which town or school she will be placed in yet. But she was to spend this week in North Carolina, then go to Atlanta for training and to teach in the public schools' summer session for five weeks there.

In the afternoons, Teach for America will hold classes that will go toward Kallembach's certification to be a teacher in North Carolina. Kallembach will also receive a week of specialized training in writing science lesson plans in Houston. Kallembach will also have to complete classes at East Carolina University throughout her first year of teaching. The university has designed a program specifically for Teach for America corps members to get their certification quickly.

Kallembach said the students in the school are sometimes two to three grade levels behind their counterparts at middle- to higher-income schools.

"What I'm going to try my hardest to do is to make up that difference – to bring them up to where they're supposed to be," she said. "Thinking about making up three years in a year seems like a really daunting task. ... I absolutely have to do this. And I'm going to do it in whatever way I can. This is going to be my life."

Kallembach added that while the classroom is an important part of bridging the inequality gap, carrying the vision to other parts of society is crucial.

"It's going to take a more fundamental, systemic kind of change to really change what these kids are dealing with," she said.

A little more about Teach for America:

The program allows corps members to list their preferences of locations in the United States. The organization looks for diverse members of society, who are recent college graduates and professionals with leadership skills. More than 12,000 people have participated in the program, reaching nearly 3 million students.

Teach for America's corps members generally have an average GPA of 3.6, and 95 percent held leadership positions on their college campuses.

In the 2008-09 school year, Teach for America will place its corps members in 29 urban and rural regions in more than 100 school districts in 23 states and the District of Columbia. The school districts pay the Teach for America participants for their teaching.

On the Web: www.teachforamerica.org.

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