Wise in The Ways of The World

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In 20 minutes, a New York subway train can transport you uptown, downtown, or across town. It can also carry you out of town and into a different world.

Maybe not as far as the Comoros Islands or Costa Rica, but close enough for 59 former Peace Corps volunteers who travel daily to teach in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods.

For two of them, the journey begins in upper Manhattan. Warmed by layers of wool and refillable mugs of hot coffee, Jim Scheidegger and Julie Courts stride through the cool morning sunshine to the 86th Street subway entrance. Some 20 minutes later, like characters passing through C.S. Lewis's magic wardrobe, they emerge at 172nd Street in the Bronx to face an entirely different landscape.

The "Death Wall" waits for them at the top of the subway exit. Colored with spray-painted epitaphs--"Rest in Peace"--and the names and dates of dead gang members, the concrete slab serves as an informal tombstone for the neighborhood.

Today there is a new name.

"Zaire was remote, but sometimes the culture of the Bronx seems even more foreign than Africa," sighs Scheidegger, who teaches science at nearby William Howard Taft High School.

Courts, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Taft, agrees. "When I left for Lesotho, I was expecting a major change and prepared myself," she says. "But I wasn't expecting a whole other culture in the inner city."

With a last look at the wall, the two teachers hustle toward the massive school buildingits imposing windows on the lower floors encased in steel fencingthe site of their latest cross-cultural assignment.

'Not Chaucer Majors'

For a decade, schools such as Taft have served as training grounds for a cadre of returned Peace Corps volunteers eager to become teachers in their own country.

Working in hard-to-staff urban and rural schools is the cornerstone of the Peace Corps Fellows Education Program, a collaboration between the Peace Corps, 18 schools of education, and a network of urban and rural school districts. The Peace Corps recruits former volunteers; the education schools train them in such critical-shortage subject areas as math, science, and bilingual education; and the school districts place them in appropriate assignments.

In exchange for two years of teaching, the fellows receive tuition assistance, a teacher's salary and, if necessary, provisional certification until they graduate.

This in-service program grew out of one former volunteer's frustration while attending the Peace Corps' 25th anniversary celebration in 1981. "Over and over, I heard people say, 'Peace Corps was the greatest thing that happened to me,"' says Beryl Levinger, then a researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University. "It struck me as an incredible potential waste of talent."

When she returned to New York, Levinger met with P. Michael Timpane, who was then the president of Teachers College, to suggest that former volunteers be recruited to work in the city's schools as much-needed math and science teachers. Because of their success working in other cultures with limited resources, she identified them as ideal recruits.

Four years later, after extensive negotiations between New York City's board of education, Teachers College, and the Peace Corps, the first fellows program was inaugurated at Columbia University. This January, the program celebrated its 10thanniversary.

"It was very different at the time. I was impressed by the possibility," recalls Glegg Watson, the vice president for public and urban affairs for Xerox USA, which provided the initial funding. "We weren't training Chaucer majors, but real math and science teachers."

In a profession known for high attrition, the fellows program can boast about an exceptional retention rate. More than 90 percent of the 470 former fellows have remained in teaching; 60 percent in their original schools. By contrast, Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Teachers College, estimates that between 30 percent and 50 percent of all new teachers leave during their first five years.

Mark Keegan has been teaching science at the A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem for nine years. "My kids often say, 'Mr. Keegan, you could have been a doctor,' but I say, 'If I can teach 20 kids a year, that's the real value."'

This kind of commitment comes as no surprise to Marta Casper, the director of George Washington University's fellows program in Washington. The Peace Corps experience, she says, gives volunteers ample time to reflect on themselves, their goals, and their commitment to teaching.

"We're not talking about saving the world, but we are meeting a real need here at home," says Carol Bellamy, the director of the Peace Corps. "That a majority of the fellows are still teaching in underserved schools is an extraordinary success," adds the former Wall Street investment banker. "The American taxpayers are getting a lot for their money."

Funded entirely by the private sector, the program hasreceived $11 million from foundations, companies, and individuals over the past decade. In November 1992, the Dewitt-Wallace Readers' Digest Fund pledged $5.5 million to support 800 fellows for four years as part of its Pathways to Teaching Careers, a national teacher-recruitment initiative.

It's a worthwhile investment, asserts Mildred Hudson, a program officer for the fund. "One fellow went from working with children in India to working on the Havasupai Indian Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon," she says. "That takes a special person."

Emotional Extremes

Situated next to the East River at 116th Street in Spanish Harlem, Public School 208 is an island of stability in this neighborhood of abandoned row houses, shattered glass, and looming smokestacks. The only color this morning comes from the pink, purple, and red of students' winter jackets as they stream into school.

It is a long way from Senegal where Jill Kendrick served as a Peace Corps volunteer. In her first year of teaching, Kendrick has decided to take a holistic approach to working with her learning-disabled kindergarten students. "Serving as a volunteer, I realized how important the whole cultural system was to my work. I talked to the chief and the chief of the chief. Everyone had to be involved," she explains. "Here, if I don't respect that school is one part of these families' lives, I won't get their help."

At the Lincoln Multi-Cultural Middle School in Washington, Maureen Mehrer, a fellow at George Washington University, views her decision to teach in the inner city as an extension of her service in Hungary. "I could go to the suburbs where it is easier," she admits. "Yet with all of the things that make this job difficult, that's exactly why we should be here. If we are not, who will be? Who else is going to give these kids the security and self-esteem to help them cut the cycle they're in?"

What these new teachers bring to the classroom from their time overseas is oftenintangible: patience, flexibility, creativity, and perseverance. Sure, slides and artifacts may wend their way into a lesson from time to time. But for a lot of students, many of whom are economically isolated or recent immigrants, the possibility ofrelating to a volunteer's lifein Africa or the South Pacificis slim at best.

Three miles from the Mexican border, Richard Dierkes, a fellow at the University of Texas at El Paso, draws on the culture shock he felt as a new volunteer in Costa Rica to work with his Mexican-American students. "Every year, I get two or three kids who come over the border," he says."I'm conscious of where they are coming from and am lucky that I have the experience to be more sensitive to them."

Many fellows say they did not expect to encounter the same--or even worse--conditions in their own country as they did in the developing world. Though used to functioning with limited resources, they seem challenged by the cultural gulf between the America they know and the one they see in these schools.

To get to know their students and the world they come from, the fellows at Taft sometimes ask the teenagers to write short essays or poems about themselves. "I've seen some amazing things," says Matthew Dwyer, an E.S.L. teacher. "One girl wrote that she knew she had failed a test, but her mother was living in a crack house."

Camaraderie helps the fellows cope with the emotional extremes of their environments. "We get into these great moral discussions," says Scheidegger. "What changes can we possibly effect? What does it mean to be a really successful teacher?"

And, of course, there are also the connections with students. "In all the negatives, there are little things that keep us here," Dwyer adds. "Every day, there are 30, 40, 50 kids who smile at me in the halls and say 'Hello Mr. Dwyer."'

Bittersweet Reputation

From inner cities like Baltimore and Detroit to remote Southwestern Indian reservations, the fellows have earned a reputation as committed, caring teachers.

Frank N. Mickens, the principal of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, is one of their biggest supporters. But he wasn't always enthusiastic.

In 1985, when Teachers College tried to place some of the first fellows at Boys and Girls, Mickens was skeptical about their ability to teach in his school, then dubbed one of the worst in the nation. "I remember saying 'You're nice people, but can you teach?"'

Today, he sounds like a college basketball coach angling for the best recruits. "I always hustle down to the hiring hole at the board of ed," he says. "I don't let anyone else take them. I want first pick."

In 1991, as the director of the Peace Corps, Sen. Paul N. Coverdell of Georgia visited Boys and Girls High School to see the fellows in action. "They brought a new enthusiasm to the school," he says. "The stories about them are legend. When I left, I said this may have been the most important hour I spent in Peace Corps."

Although the fellows usually enjoy a warm welcome from their students, some colleagues have accused them of taking jobs from qualified teachers. But Daniel Tamulonis, the director of Columbia University's fellows program, says that assumption is simply not true. "The fellows' jobs are based on a combination of need, subject, and location," Tamulonis explains. "Many people would not even be willing to take on these positions."

And when in school themselves, the fellows have also been known to get mixed reviews from their peers and professors on campus.

"As a group they are a bit feisty," admits Sam Minner, the director of the fellows program at Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff. "They will tell you if they don't think they are getting anything out of a class. They have challenged classroom practices, and some professors have made adjustments."

Challenging their colleagues may give the fellows a bittersweet reputation. But it also puts them on the cutting edge of teacher-preparation reform, especially in light of the recent report from the Holmes Group--an organization of deans of education schools in research institutions--urging schools of education to provide more realistic teacher preparation. Indeed, the experience garnered from a decade of the fellows program may hold some lessons for this national restructuring effort.

"It is an approach to what we are calling for that could work," says Frank Murray, the chair of the Holmes Group and the dean of education at the University of Delaware. "The Peace Corps personality seeks out an environment very different from his or her own," he says. "That's exactly what's being required of the next generation of teachers--they need to want to go to a new land."

Vol. 14, Issue 24

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