“Teach for America recognized the deep connection that Berea College alumni have with the students that they serve due to the experiences they share.”

What is Teach for America?

Taylor Ballinger, ’07, had a very influential friend during his undergraduate education at Berea College. This friend was a special needs child who was a member of the Berea Buddies program, which pairs Berea student mentors with children from the community. Ballinger saw in this child the same boundless potential that Berea College had recognized in himself. Their close relationship inspired Ballinger to pursue a future as a special education teacher with Teach for
America (TFA).

Teach for America is a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 for the purpose of educating children from low-income backgrounds in hopes of eliminating educational inequality. TFA accepts high-achieving college graduates from all over the United States to teach for at least two years in areas of the country determined to be susceptible to educational inequality due to poverty. According to their mission statement, “although 16 million American children face the extra challenges of poverty, an increasing body of evidence shows they can achieve at the highest levels.” Because of this, TFA reaches out to low-income communities to provide quality education they would not otherwise receive.

Will Nash, the executive director of Teach for America within the Kentucky area states, “The education opportunity gap between our low-income students in eastern Kentucky and their more affluent peers across the state is startling. Today, only 28 percent of low-income 4th graders are proficient in reading, as compared with 62 percent of their more affluent peers.” Nash goes on to tell of the work that Teach for America is doing to address that educational gap. He says TFA helps address this educational gap by supporting “more than 40 teachers who are a critical source of teaching talent in our highest needs schools. These teachers work arm-in-arm with veteran educators, students, families, and community leaders to foster truly exceptional classrooms serving our lowest-income communities.”

A Liberal Arts Education

As a liberal arts school, Berea College includes a variety of required courses designed to encourage critical thinking skills and give students a strong educational base. Learning through service is also an important component of a liberal arts education. Both students and graduates associated with the school have many opportunities to be involved with the community.

In recent years, Berea graduates have been recruited by TFA and have proven to be a good match for the program. Nash states that, “Berea students are ripe for participation in Teach for America because of their deep commitment to social justice, and their understanding of the education achievement gap.” Berea College students and TFA students both come from low-income and often impoverished backgrounds. “Teach for America recognized the deep connection that Berea College alumni have with the students that they serve due to the experiences they share,” said Ballinger.

Ballinger’s first placement school with TFA was in New Orleans, just after Hurricane Katrina. At the beginning of his teaching career, most of Ballinger’s students were sophomores. He followed the same class for three years and saw them graduate in 2010. Ballinger described the experience of seeing his students walk across the stage despite incredible hardship as “one of the most incredible days of my life.” One student, who was considered the troublemaker in his class, remains especially clear in Ballinger’s memory. As the time came for him to walk across the stage, the students in the audience grew louder and louder until the moment when they called the student’s name. Then, the whole room erupted in cheering and screaming for him. “The look on his face was priceless. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school. Walking across the stage validated everything he had worked for.”

Providing Opportunities

Teach for America’s goal is uncovering the untapped potential in many young students, which harmonizes with Berea College’s first great commitment of providing educational opportunities for students from low-income backgrounds who have great potential. The close alignment between the college’s and TFA’s principles is another factor that makes Berea students a successful part of the TFA program. Nash states, in reference to students who come from a liberal arts background, “Some of the areas of strength that Teach For America looks for include a deep belief in the potential of all kids, often informed by experience in low-income communities; leadership; past achievement; perseverance in challenging situations; long-term commitment to reaching goals; excellent organization and critical-thinking skills; strong interpersonal skills; and an ability to work with individuals from a variety of backgrounds. We’ve seen many applicants from liberal arts schools that fit these criteria”

Jamie Nunnery, ’13, poses with her biology students.

Another aspect of Berea College’s liberal arts education that makes alumni suitable candidates for organizations like TFA is the college’s labor program. The labor program helps students gain useful skills that help them after graduation. “Although I took many college classes that are associated with the subjects I teach, nothing can compare to the experiences and growth I personally gained from being a student worker and Bonner Scholar at CELTS,” shares Jamie Nunnery, ’13, TFA Corps member in South Carolina. The Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service program is divided into many different offices dedicated to a variety of service-projects in the community. Both CELTS and Bonner Scholars are part of the service learning aspect of the college. Bonner Scholars is a service-centered labor position on campus that accepts fifteen incoming freshmen every year.

Nunnery says she also learned a great deal from teaching biology at Kingstree Senior High School in Kingstree, South Carolina under Teach for America. Kingstree Senior High School has been labeled as a school with a high failing rate, and with that label personal expectations among students suffered as well. Nunnery went into a classroom with an end-of-course exam passing rate of 50-60% and brought the class up to an 89% passing rate. She states, “My students and I crushed that label and received an 89% passing rate, with more A’s than any other letter grade, and 9 perfect scores. When I revealed individual scores to students last semester, it was so exciting to see students’ reactions. One of my students said ‘wow, I can’t believe I’m that smart’.”  Even when receiving praise as a teacher from her students, Nunnery believes that her greatest accomplishment comes from unlocking her students’ potential.  “Watching their mindsets grow about themselves has been the best part of the work I do.”

Many Berea College students feel a connection with programs like TFA since they often come from the same low-income background as the students that such programs seek to serve. “After hearing more about the mission and core values of Teach for America, I quickly realized that I was essentially one of the students we serve in Teach for America,” shares Nunnery. The connections Bereans feel to low-resource students goes back to the college’s commitment to provide opportunities to students with “great promise and limited resources.”

Nunnery also uses her classroom to share Berea’s mission with potential students.

“I think Berea College students can take their servant hearts and be a good fit in almost any organization that values helping others, hard work, and empowering communities,” states Jenna Ott, ’10, a Teach for America member. Regardless of their major, the principles the college was founded on and the way they are present in day-to-day life on campus affects students and shapes them into well-rounded individuals. The skills and experiences students gain during their time in Berea College affect them as people, and the outcome is graduates ready to give back wholeheartedly to their community—that is exactly what Teach for America is looking for in their candidates. Will Nash, executive director of TFA reminds us that, “There are many important efforts happening to address the injustices facing children growing up in poverty. We’re proud to be part of these efforts working alongside hardworking educators, advocates, and families across the country. I hope more Berea College grads will consider joining Teach for America.”


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