Grads flock to Teach for America

Teacher at chalkboard

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BOB MOON: Here's a phenomenon that you might have trouble imagining: Why would some of America's top college grads be eager to head for some of the toughest classrooms in the country?

It's part of a program called Teach for America. Those accepted teach full-time for at least two years in an inner city or far-flung community. And it's very competitive.

They earn teacher salaries, and get some federal student loans forgiven. Many continue with teaching, but others use it as a stepping stone to graduate school, or a more lucrative career in another field.

But since jobs have vaporized for new college grads, Teach for America's looking more like a great opportunity in and of itself.

Reporter Sally Herships found applications to the program are sky high.


SALLY HERSHIPS: Teach for America is one tough gig. Donna Foote should know. She spent a year following four of the program's teachers at Locke -- an inner city school in L.A. She wrote a book about it. The idea came, she says, from visiting a friend's classroom at the school.

DONNA FOOTE: And there was my friend at the front of the classroom with her fingers up for each syllable of words as simple as Cat. So it would Kuh-at -- Cat. And this was not a remedial ninth-grade English class. This was ninth-grade English at Locke High School.

It's difficult work. And the pay -- a teacher's -- is low. But nonetheless Foote says Teach for America only wants to hire future leaders.

FOOTE: The secret sauce at Teach for America is this premium put on human capital. They want the best and the brightest on the bus. And they know where they're going.

This year, Foote says, it's harder than ever to get in. Applicant numbers are at record levels -- 35,000 job-seekers for just six or seven thousand spots. Eleven percent of all Ivy league seniors applied.

FOOTE: It is tough: 25 percent of the graduating class at Spelman, 15 percent at Princeton and Yale, 14 percent at Harvard.

Notre Dame grad Patrick Vassel made the cut a couple years back. The political science major wasn't sure teaching was the best career for him, but now his apartment is well-stocked with Dr. Seuss books and boxes of macaroni for art projects. His days are spent teaching special education to fourth graders.

PATRICK VASSEL: So if we count by four Cyan . . . So, just like he's separating them, right? Oh, what are you counting by, Jamal?

JAMAL: I'm counting by threes. Like, three, six, nine, 12. Each row...

Vassel says while it's the most challenging thing he's ever done, the program is also an investment in his future.

HERSHIPS: What does it mean to have this on your resume?

VASSEL: It's tremendous.

But...

VASSEL: There's far easier things to do in the world to polish your resume than to commit to teaching two years in an urban or rural underprivileged school. There's faster ways to move up whatever ladder you're trying to.

Teach for America, Vassel says, is more then just a bullet point on your resume.

FOOTE: It means good things for your future.

Donna Foote again. Employers know, she says, program grads gain skills that can be applied almost anywhere.

FOOTE: Achievement, perseverance, critical thinking.

It's these skills that attract universities and employers like Google to take the program's grads. David Stanley is a recruitment director at Teach for America. He says applicants were rising long before the job market soured.

DAVID STANLEY: I don't think that this is necessarily a passing fad and I think people are really kind of outraged. When people are losing their mortgages and their houses and all these things are happening that education is really the way to get back to the roots of all that.

Stanley says Teach for America is taking advantage of its growing popularity. One of the program goals, he says, is to get 100 alumni into political office by the year 2010. It's not just about the future though. Teacher Patrick Vassel is also focused on today.

VASSEL: The payoff is right now that we have a job, because so many people don't or are losing them very quickly.

But Teach for America recruiter David Stanley says right now people have public welfare on their minds. The Peace Corps says their applications are up 16 percent. And Teach for America is on track to double its work force by next year.

In New York, I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace Money.

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