Teach For America Grows Up

The idea seemed like fantasy 20 years ago: Take the brightest graduates from the best colleges and send them into America's neediest urban and rural classrooms.

But that fantasy has become reality, as the nonprofit program Teach For America has exploded in growth in recent years, drawing the top graduating seniors and sending them to teach in public school classrooms instead of jobs on Wall Street or the ivory tower.

VIDEO: Program is a top employer of college grads. But is it best for students?
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This week, Teach For America announced that it has accepted 4,100 new teachers for its incoming corp of teachers, a record number for the organization that is the now the top employer for graduates from Brown, Georgetown, Vanderbilt and a dozen others top schools.

In one of the worst job markets in decades, the organization received more than 35,000 applications from college seniors this year, making their selection process more selective than Ivy League colleges such as Harvard and Yale -- which both had 11 percent of their senior classes apply for teaching positions with the organization.

But is this experiment to put the best and brightest in the nation's struggling classrooms working? And why is such a noble idea so controversial?

Exceeding Expectations

Jackson, La., is one of those small towns with few people, and fewer opportunities. A prison and hospital provide the best jobs, and college is a dream fulfilled by about only 15 percent of students.

But at Jackson Middle School, change is in the air, as Teach For America corp members help transform the struggling southern Louisiana school.

"Since last year, we had students that didn't really care about anything," says eighth-grade honors student Tia Bell. "And this year, we have students that really care about their grades. And we have a principal that really cares."

That principal is Allison El Koubi, a 2000 graduate of Houghton College who has just finished her first year as principal of Jackson Middle School. She started at Jackson nine years ago as a Teach For America corp member, teaching eighth-grade English for six years and founding the school's library.

She briefly left Jackson to pursue a master's degree in education and spend a year training to become a principal, before returning to take over the head administrative post at the school last fall. El Koubi, whose mother was a public school teacher, never had any intention of entering the teaching profession.

"I thought about getting a PhD in French Literature. And had thought about being a nanny in France a couple years after college," El Koubi says of her post-graduation plans.

Instead, she signed on with Teach For America and accepted a two-year stint as a teacher in rural Louisiana. Nine years later, she's still here, now a principal, doling out lunch line hot sauce and keeping an eye on student dress code in the cafeteria and hallways.

She has also helped propel the school and its students to some of the best state test results the school has seen in years, along with the help of five Teach For America teachers who make up a third of her small staff.

"You totally exceeded all our expectations," El Koubi told the school's sixth-grade students last week, while going over results showing dramatic increases in test scores in all subject areas.

The Best and the Brightest

El Koubi's success at Jackson is exactly what Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp imagined as a Princeton senior 20 years ago.

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