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Going Back to School: In the City

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Fed up with accounts of crime and educational blight, Valyncia Lindsey decided to teach at her old elementary school in the District of Columbia.

Washington

Valyncia Lindsey made two moves last year that stunned her family and friends. First, she quit her suburban job as a computer-graphics specialist where she'd worked for eight years to become a teacher. Then Lindsey, fed up with accounts of crime and educational blight in her childhood community, insisted on returning to her old elementary school in the fiscally troubled District of Columbia.

"It may sound corny, but I wanted to do more," Lindsey says. "You need to get people who care back in, and I really cared."

Aside from her midcareer move to education, this 30-something woman stands out for passionately wanting to work in the inner-city rather than a suburb or small town, as do the majority of new teachers.

"Being black, the only way to help is to go back and walk these halls," she adds.

Lindsey took a $5,000-a-year pay cut to join Teach for America, a nonprofit group that sends teachers into underserved communities nationwide. Her only condition in joining: that she teach at Anne Beers Elementary School.

"I was way, way pleased when I got it," Lindsey recalls, "but I didn't know what grade I'd have." She wanted to be placed with one of the higher grades. Instead, she was assigned to the 1st grade. And while keeping the young tykes on task has been a challenge, she says the grade level has worked out fine. "I'm surprised," she says. "I really love it."

And the community returns the affection. Former classmates, many of whom are professionals in the area, congratulate Lindsey on going back to her school and frequently volunteer to visit her class as guest speakers. Even her mom, who taught high school in the District of Columbia for 30 years, drops in to help.

Her principal, Constant Hollingsworth, laments the fact that more graduates from city schools don't return as Lindsey did. "Those teachers have an extra special interest in wanting to give back to the community and give something special to children to help them succeed," she says.

The tirelessly upbeat Lindsey, for example, is one of a few teachers mingling with parents in front of the school at the end of the day. She tells an elderly woman that her granddaughter had acted up in class. The woman explains that the girl forgot to take her medicine but thanks her for the information all the same. A young mother asks Lindsey about her son's behavior. Lindsey shakes her head sternly and reports, "He could have been better."

At nearby Ballou Senior High School, a similar story is unfolding. Noel Cyrus, a former standout athlete at Ballou, has volunteered to coach the school's track team for the past seven years while working as an insurance salesman.

"I found that coaching became addictive," Cyrus says. "I started spending so much time with students that I was neglecting my business."

After winning six District of Columbia high school track championships, Cyrus began to wonder if he could have the same kind of success in the classroom. So two years ago, the 37-year-old bachelor jumped into teaching full-time, giving up the chance to make $2,000 in one night on a big sale for $50-a-day substitute teaching jobs. Last fall, his alma mater offered him a full-time job as a business teacher, granting him a one-year probationary period to earn his teaching credentials.

As a longtime resident, Cyrus says the neighborhood's negative stereotypes have always bothered him. He also worries how those images affect his students. After two female Ballou students were murdered last spring, for instance, Cyrus felt the media tried to link the deaths to the school, even without an apparent connection.

"Somehow, it seems like if anything happens nearby, they try to attach it to Ballou High," says Cyrus, who is unawareof any shooting ever on the school's grounds. "As bad as they try to portray our school, the kids are just as good as any other students."

Cyrus urges his former athletes, most of whom went on to college, to return and share their experiences outside the nation's capital.

"We can win lots of championships, but the best feeling I get is around Thanksgiving and Christmas when they show up and spend time with my teams," Cyrus says. "It's the greatest feeling in the world. I wouldn't trade it for a million or two million dollars. And I mean it."

--ROBERT C. JOHNSTON

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