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TC Peace Corps Fellows and the Board of Education Team Up to Revitalize George Washington High

"We're supposed to work miracles," said Colette Caesar, a first-year teacher at George Washington High School. "We're supposed to change the culture of expectations."

Any other new teacher might be overwhelmed by that kind of challenge--but not Caesar or her classmates in the Peace Corps Fellows Program at Teachers College.

Twenty-three students from the TC program who have served as Peace Corps volunteers in Central America, Eastern Europe and Africa were hired by George Washington High School this fall.

The high school, which is located on the northern tip of Manhattan, has been under review by the state since 1989 because of the consistently poor performance of its students on writing and reading tests, said Janice Medina, deputy superintendent of Manhattan high schools.

Half the teachers at the school retired or were reassigned at the end of the academic year. TC students were among the teachers assigned to replace them. During the day, the Peace Corps Fellows work at the high school as full-time, salaried teachers. In the evenings, they take courses at TC leading to a master's degree in education.

"We're not getting into this thinking that we're getting the best teachers in the world," said Medina, who is supervising the revitalization of the school. "But we are getting some of the most committed teachers."

"First and foremost there is a commitment that is discernible in any conversation with the Fellows," she said. "There is a resourcefulness and a willingness to take up a challenge. There is a willingness to work with people unlike themselves."

The Peace Corps Fellows Program began in 1985 in response to "A Nation at Risk," which warned the nation that an entire generation of children in the United States was being raised scientifically and technologically illiterate. The goal of the Peace Corps Fellows Program is to provide inner-city schools with qualified, effective and committed teachers in critical subject areas. The program offers former Peace Corps Volunteers reduced tuition towards a master's degree and a permanent teaching certificate in exchange for a commitment to teach in New York City public schools for two years.

The primary academic focus of the program when it was established at TC about 12 years ago was science and mathematics. Those areas are still considered critical, but as the student body of New York City schools has changed, new disciplines have been added to the list of critical subject areas, such as special education and bilingual education.

At George Washington High School, for example, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages is also a critical area because the school serves a predominantly Hispanic population--largely from the Dominican Republic.

The DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund has been a long-time financial backer of the program at TC. The fund recently awarded TC a three-year grant of $308,000 to support the program and to help it develop as a leadership site for other universities that want to start similar efforts for former Peace Corps volunteers. The program was initally funded by individual donors, among them Elliot S. Jaffe, a TC Trustee, and Bernard Sunshine.

Daniel Fergus Tamulonis, coordinator of the Peace Corps Fellows Program at TC, said that the Board of Education of the City of New York is a strong supporter of the fellowships. "My contacts at the Board continue to be impressed with the caliber and level of dedication of the Fellows. They are so proud of those who successfully teach for two years and they wax more and more effusive when they mention those who continue on to teach for a third, fourth, or fifth year and more," Tamulonis said.

Tamulonis served four years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) as a Peace Corps volunteer. He spent three of those years teaching, and one year as a regional director in the Kivu region. He spent a fifth year in the country as a staff member, as the Associate Peace Corps Director of Education.

"As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer myself, I know what RPCVs and Fellows are capable of," Tamulonis said. "Still, many times the Fellows don't believe me when I try to let them know that teaching full-time in the New York City schools--and taking classes part-time--will most certainly be more difficult than even the most challenging Peace Corps post."

"One could amend the current slogan of the Peace Corps to read 'Your next toughest job you'll ever love' with no fear of exaggerating the truth," he continued. "It has long been a well-kept secret that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers were a rich, mostly untapped resource for our own United States. How fortunate for Teachers College and New York City public school children that this resource could find a home here."

For Scott and Jane Hall, the Peace Corps Fellows Program at TC was a chance to do something they have longed to do--teach. The couple used to operate a bicycle-touring company based in Wisconsin. After about eight years, Jane Hall said: "We found ourselves farther and farther away from the people and dealing more and more with payroll and taxes."

They sold their company about four years ago and joined the Peace Corps. They ended up in Nicaragua running workshops for small business owners. Some of the businessmen wanted to learn English. "When people are bilingual in Nicaragua, it opens up opportunities," Scott Hall said. "So I started some classes."

They really had wanted to teach full-time when they joined the Peace Corps. When their stint in the Peace Corps was over, they decided to enroll in a Peace Corps Fellows teaching program.

Fellows receive tuition scholarships of up to 30 percent, an annual salary of approximately $30,000 (depending upon prior experience and completed academic credits) and full health benefits.

The Peace Corps Fellows Program gives the new teachers challenges and responsibility from the beginning. The Halls and Caesar spent the summer working side-by-side with teachers at George Washington High School. In the evening, they had classes at TC on classroom management and use of media. By the time the fall semester began, the new teachers were a little nervous but prepared.

In addition to regular coursework after school, Fellows also participate in a special monthly seminar. At every seminar, a half-hour or so is set aside for informal socializing and interacting with other Fellows, former Peace Corps volunteers, and a guest. Regular presenters have included members of the New York City Board of Education and the TC faculty. Maxine Greene, the William F. Russell Professor Emeritus in the Foundations of Education, has discussed aesthetics and education with the Fellows, for instance. Board of Education staff members have given talks on licensing and conflict resolution.

Fellows in the program have long days. At night, they grade their students' homework and work on their own assignments for TC classes. Despite the tiring pace, they are committed to the program and their craft.

"My reason for going into the Peace Corps was to become a teacher," said Jane Hall, who teaches English as a Second Language. Even though maintaining discipline in a couple of classes is challenging, she is still enthusiastic about her new profession.

Her husband, who also teaches English courses, feels the same way. "I enjoy working with the kids," he said. "I'm not really interested in pursuing a Ph.D. I like being in the classroom."

Caesar, who is a Jaffe Dewey Scholar, took a slightly different path to the Peace Corps Fellows Program. She served in the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka for two years and then enrolled in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. She has a master's in administration, planning, and social policy from Harvard. She hopes to be an administrator one day. However, she wanted to have classroom experience first.

"It's important to know what a school is like," she said. "We have all of these policies that look great on paper--like shared decisionmaking--but how does that filter down into the classroom?"

"We say that we want to get away from teacher-centered learning. But look at how the classrooms are designed. The teacher is in the front of the class."

There are discipline problems at the school. Even so, she thinks her colleagues in the Peace Corps Fellows Program are doing well. They have high expectations for the students and the students know it.

For example, Caesar likens her classroom to an airplane. The teacher is the pilot and the students are the passengers. If the pilot is allowed to do her job, you'll get where you want to go, she explains. In this case, it is advancement from an English class for limited English speakers to a standard English course.

"Have you ever heard of a hijacking?" she asks the class. "If someone is disruptive, we're taken off target. Unless, of course, the passengers help the pilot maintain control."

So far, Caesar's class hasn't been hijacked.

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