Teach For America is a national nonprofit organization that recruits college graduates to teach in low-income communities throughout the United States.
Wright, 24, a kinesiology/movement major at the University of Michigan, was leaning toward seeking a career as a physical therapist as her 2009 college graduation approached. Then she heard from friends and recruiters about Teach For America.
She said she has always had an interest in working with kids, so Wright began reading literature about the program and decided to apply for a teaching position.
“I thought it would be a good experience for me,” she said.
The application process itself was stressful, Wright recalled. She had to go through three rounds of interviews, including spending an entire day with Teach For
America officials who required her to submit a lesson plan — something she had never done.
“It was extremely stressful, but I got accepted,” Wright said.
After completing a five-week training program, she was assigned to teach in the Kansas City, Mo., school district, where many of the students lived in poverty or were homeless.
“When I became a teacher in the Kansas City school district, I was shocked at the absolute difference between the schools that I had attended and schools that I was now teaching in,” Wright said.
The Kansas City school district was undergoing major changes — including closing a number of schools. So, during her first year, Wright found herself moved to six different schools and teaching six different subjects.
Finally, Wright was assigned to teach grades 3-4 at an elementary school, where most of the students had behavioral problems or low achievement in the classroom. This past school year, Wright taught sixth-graders.
“This was an incredible experience for me and an eye-opener to the reality of the achievement gap in this country,” she wrote in an e-mail. “My students have dealt with more in their 12-year-old lives than most of my friends and family have dealt with their entire lives. They read and do math on average two years below grade level — some more and some less — yet the low retention rate shows that the problem is only being advanced, as students are promoted grade-to-grade regardless of academic growth and achievement.”
Much of Wright’s time in the classroom, in fact, was spent dealing with behavioral issues. A lot of times the kids were stressed because of their home lives. That stress often led to students fighting, swearing and being disrespectful to the teachers, she said.
“The lack of parental support was a challenge,” she said.
But Wright was determined to have an impact on the students so that they could enjoy learning. She emphasized to the students that they could learn to be smart.
She measured their progress each week and told them where they stood in terms of advancing their learning. She even set up a Saturday tutoring program, which was aimed more at building relationships with the students than teaching.
“When they trust you, they do better,” Wright said.
Wright, who played soccer in Grand Haven, set up an after-school soccer program to expose the students to the sport.
Wright said she enjoyed watching her students grow. She said some of the students are now even talking about going to college.
She also has appreciated the support she received from Grand Haven residents when she requested school supplies and books.
“I have had endless support during my two years with Teach For America from the community members of Grand Haven,” she said. “They have provided books and funding for my classroom, and words of support to keep me going through the challenge — and for that, I am grateful.”
Wright, the daughter of Bob and Chris Wright of Grand Haven, said she is looking forward to returning home to pursue a law degree. She isn’t sure what type of law she hopes to practice.
She also hasn’t ruled out another opportunity to teach at an urban school district, but she said the two years that she spent in Kansas City will be forever etched in her memory.
“After working in a struggling school district for two years and building a better understanding of the problem, I am a true believer that the achievement gap can be closed,” Wright said. “All children can learn.”