Grad gains experience, inspiration through Teach for America
Ten months after graduating with honors from the University of Colorado Denver, Karolina Villagrana is living a life she never dreamed of as a first-year student. “Back then, all I wanted to do was make a lot of money and travel the world,” recalls Villagrana, who once envisioned a jet-setting career in international finance. “Never did I see myself as a teacher.”
Today, the 22-year-old awakens each day in a spartan apartment three blocks from one of Kansas City’s roughest neighborhoods , crosses the street to an overcrowded K-9 school housed in a converted office building, and wheels her “mobile classroom,” from room to room, teaching Spanish to students mired in poverty and violence but hungry to learn. She couldn’t be happier.
Villagrana is among 4,500 2010 graduates (chosen from a record 47,000 applicants) to participate in Teach For America (TFA), a highly competitive program that places fresh-faced college grads with a variety of educational backgrounds into two-year teaching positions at inner-city schools.
“In the beginning it was really hard. I thought to myself, ‘I could easily go back to Denver and get another job,’” says Villagrana, a '10 bilingual psychology grad with minors in ethnic studies and Spanish, a 3.8 5 GPA, and a lengthy resume of public service. “But so many people have already failed these students. That is not an option for me.”
Having survived the rigorous application process, and the five-week intro-to-education “boot camp ” at a Chicago elementary school, Villagrana arrived in August at Derrick Thomas Academy, a 900-student school that just three years ago was deemed “failing,” with just 17 percent of its students reading at grade level. Its achievement scores are on the rise (thanks in part to its 10 TFA teachers). But more than one-third of its students come from the infamous 64130 zip code, known as the home of more convicted murderers than any other in Missouri.
Some have witnessed murders. Others have seen their parents go to prison.
“A lot of the kids here know more people in jail than in college. Some live in shelters. Some come from families where no one has ever graduated from high school,” says Villagrana. “But they are still here fighting for their education. I never had to fight for mine like that.”
She works hard for her modest salary of $35,000. Villagrana teaches 23 Spanish classes per week, works with middle-school English language learners and draws on her rich knowledge of Latino history to educate and motivate her student s with stories about inspirational leaders such as labor-activist Cesar Chavez. When school is out, she works well past midnight creating lesson plans. On weekends, she tutors those who are falling behind. Meanwhile, she’s pursuing a master’s in elementary education.
“She is phenomenal,” says Principal Shane Knight. “She arrived here as a Colorado girl out of her comfort zone. Now she lives and shops and volunteers in the same community as the kids do. That means a lot to them. She and the other TFA teachers are changing the culture of this school to one of high expectations and relentless pursuit.”
What will Villagrana do once her two-year stint with TFA is done? No question, she says: She will remain an educator.
“Being here has helped me realize that our education system is not perfect and fired me up to do something about it,” she says.
Her next goal: A PhD in education policy.
Repurposed from the spring 2011 issue of CU on the Horizon