As I left school after my first day of teaching in August 2011, I said to myself, “When Teach For America talked about the achievement gap, I didn’t realize it was this bad.” My mind began racing through my students’ faces, but one stuck out from that blur of a day.
His name was Malik Billings – a student who only knows Jacksonville, Fla. as the decrepit four-block radius in which he lived and nothing more. He scored a 50 percent on a diagnostic test meant for students finishing eight grade. He was in my 10th grade geometry class.
This injustice shocked me. At GW, I had access to a first-class college education, while just a few miles away, kids in Southeast D.C. were falling further and further behind. I knew I wanted to find a way to help expand educational opportunity for the 16 million American children growing up in poverty. That’s why I joined Teach For America and became a teacher at Ed White High School.
Billings’ story is all too common among students growing up in low-income communities. When kids growing up in poverty enter kindergarten, they are already academically behind their wealthier peers. By fourth grade, they are three grade levels behind. Half won’t graduate from high school, and only one in 10 will graduate from college.
While Teach For America corps members only start by making a two-year commitment, the experience has a lasting impact. As members of our school community, my fellow corps members and I are working with other teachers, parents, administrators and community members toward the pursuit of excellence for our students. I can see the difference I am making in the lives of my students, and I know the transformational impact the program has had on me.
Billings is now one of my top performing students, and I will be there in six years when he graduates from college. He will forever change how I view the role education can have in a person’s life.
For too long, one’s zip code has defined his or her destiny. But with an all-hands-on-deck approach, educational inequity is a solvable problem.
Now that I know we can work to close the achievement gap, I simply can’t walk away from this job. As you think about the role you will play in the broader world upon graduation, I hope you will consider joining me in these efforts in ending education inequality in our country.
The final Teach For America application deadline is Friday, Feb. 10.
Chris Diaz, a 2009 Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and 2011 Graduate School of Education and Human Development graduate, is a secondary math teacher at Teach For America.