By Arianna Pickard • Tulsa World
“Education in America” are the words Kojo Asamoa-Caesar remembers typing in a Google search that led him to join Teach for America and find himself teaching at an elementary school in Tulsa four years ago.
“I didn’t necessarily want to be a teacher,” said Asamoa-Carter, now preparing to serve as the principal of a new Tulsa school. “I really was drawn to this issue of educational inequity and the achievement gap.”
A native of the East Coast, Asamoa-Caesar is among hundreds of Teach for America alumni who have returned to the city where they did their service to continue their work to improve education in Tulsa and beyond. Attracting talent like that makes Teach for America a valuable program for Tulsa, but it all starts with getting people here to serve.
“Traditionally, it has been a challenge to convince admitted applicants to Teach for America that, out of 53 regions across the country, Tulsa is the place they would like to be a corps member in comparison to some larger cities,” said Rodrigo Rojas, director of development and communications for the organization’s Greater Tulsa region.
To recruit new corps members to Tulsa, Teach for America has highlighted the region’s strong school and community partnerships, as well as its growing alumni community including Asamoa-Caesar “who are taking on key leadership roles in a variety of sectors throughout the city,” Rojas said.
Aaron Miller, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and studied urban development at the University of Michigan, said he hadn’t ever thought about moving to Oklahoma before he joined Teach for America. He taught sixth- and seventh-grade math at Clinton Middle School.
Now he’s a program officer for the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which recently worked with Teach for America on a marketing campaign that has successfully recruited new members to Tulsa. It started with his service in 2010.
“And seven years later, I look up and I’m still here and very involved in the community,” Miller said. “I really came to love the Tulsa community. It was so warm and welcoming, and I saw so many opportunities to be involved in changing the city.”
Diverse corps to serve diverse schools
On average, Teach for America places more than 150 “corps members” in Tulsa schools each year, Rojas said. They will serve at sites including Tulsa Public Schools, Muskogee Public Schools, CAP Tulsa, Tulsa Legacy Charter School, Tulsa Honor Academy, College Bound Academy and Collegiate Hall.
Recruiting a diverse group of members is important because the organization aims to bring together people of different perspectives so it can “collectively solve and resolve some of the challenges that we’re facing (in education),” said Jamila Singleton-Munson, senior managing director of the Teach for America Tulsa National Institute, a five-week training program for new members.
“So by having a diverse corps, we’re having people who can see problems from different sides of the coin and get to work together collectively to really accomplish our vision,” Singleton-Munson said.
While some of its federal funding is at stake, Teach for America’s Greater Tulsa region has increased efforts this year to recruit new members.
Teach for America’s Greater Tulsa region works to raise funds locally — and that funding comprises the majority of its regional budget, Rojas said — but the organization is also supported by its status as an AmeriCorps program.
The White House has proposed a fiscal year 2018 budget that would eliminate federal AmeriCorps funding through the Corporation for National and Community Service. When Congress determines that final budget on Oct. 1, he said, it could eliminate a powerful recruitment tool for Teach for America and other AmeriCorps programs.
In exchange for their service AmeriCorps members receive an education award, currently $5,815, which can be used to go to specific schools or repay qualifying student loans. For many potential corps members, who are paid by the schools they serve commensurate with other novice teachers, that money is the only thing that makes it financially possible to choose AmeriCorps over the public sector after college.
Passion of alums
The 250 Teach for America alumni currently living in Tulsa include classroom teachers, public school administrators and individuals who have joined and established nonprofit organizations to support students, families and the community.
“I think we see this great potential in Tulsa,” Asamoa-Caesar said, explaining the draw for former Teach for America members to stay in the area. “Also, I think it’s a rich community. People are so resilient and welcoming, and there’s no outsider-versus-native kind of divide. Everybody’s accepted here, so it can be a place where you can feel at home.”
Asamoa-Caesar grew up attending public schools in Alexandria, Virginia, and had a passion for helping others achieve the “American dream” — a notion that had brought his parents to the U.S. as immigrants from Ghana.
After graduating from William & Mary Law School, he knew he wanted to help tackle issues affecting children’s access to high-quality education, but he didn’t know where to start.
“I signed up (for Teach for America) because I knew I could come into the classroom and make an impact and learn as much as possible, and then hopefully seek to address educational inequity in whatever other ways I chose,” he explained.
Asamoa-Caesar was willing to go almost anywhere in the U.S., and in 2013 Teach for America placed him in Tulsa, where he spent his two-year commitment with the organization teaching kindergarten and then third grade at Tulsa Lighthouse Charter School, which is now Tulsa Legacy Charter School.
He is now the principal of Greenwood Leadership Academy, which is opening this year as the newest partnership school with Tulsa Public Schools.
There, Asamoa-Caesar hopes to provide children with “an education that’s going to get them a shot at achieving the American dream.”
Shelton remembers that on her first day in Tulsa, she and other new Teach for America corps members visited John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park to learn more about the historic Greenwood District and Black Wall Street.
“That understanding helped me to stay motivated because I understood that my work was about racial and economic justice and righting the wrongs of the past,” Shelton said. “I also remember a training on implicit bias that caused me to be more reflective on my mindset as a teacher.”
Asamoa-Caesar says Teach for America gave him a sense of purpose, a “central driving force” he might not have otherwise.
“A lot of times people go into policy or politics, and you know it’s about just being in the position, rather than having this central driving force,” Asamoa-Caesar said, going on to describe Teach for America as a “pipeline that gives people an ‘in’ to this issue — this civil rights issue of our time.”