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Columbia University Trains Students to Teach in Tough Neighborhoods - 2002-01-20

A teacher-shortage is one of the main problems in American education today, especially in the nation's cities. A university in New York City is training some of its students to take jobs in the toughest neighborhoods.

For a long time now, politicians in the United States have been vowing to improve America's educational system. President George W. Bush is no exception, he has made education one of the focuses of his new administration. "I believe strongly that every child in America can learn," he said. "I believe that. And I believe our public school systems can teach every child in America how to read and write and add and subtract. And I took that message up to Washington."

Inspiring words, indeed. But President Bush has a sizable task before him. In comparative international tests that assess academic achievement in the developed world, American students hover somewhere in the middle of the pack. And, although there have been moderate improvements, students in impoverished and multi-lingual urban areas tend to score lower.

Sia Sanneh teaches in one of the notoriously tough neighborhoods in New York City, Washington Heights. Her experiences on "the front lines" corroborate the statistics. "It really is as bad as everyone makes it sound. The level that kids are at would be unbelievable to a lot of people," she says. "Even as prepared as I was, it was pretty surprising to me."

But Ms. Sanneh is, herself, part of the solution.

She is participating in a new program at Columbia University's Teacher's College called, "Columbia Urban Educators". Each year, the program will prepare 15 to 25 graduate students to become middle school teachers in Harlem and Washington Heights two Manhattan neighborhoods that are in the greatest need of exceptionally qualified teachers.

Students who partake in the program receive special incentives, including a tuition-free Master's degree at Teacher's College a $25,000 value, paid for by the Board Of Education and Americorps, the National Service Corporation. Perhaps more importantly, the participating students are not just given the address of the school where they will be teaching, and sent on their way. They are instead assigned a "teacher mentor", and plugged into a support group of other inner-city educators.

Tony Marx, who heads the program, explains why this component of the program is so crucial. "We want to make it attractive to stay a teacher, and therefore the initial experience has to be more positive, and people have to be given more help and support than lots of programs have been able to provide," he says.

There is no shortage of enthusiasm among the new teachers themselves. Jaime Pannone insists she would teach in neighborhoods where the need is greatest, incentives or no incentives. "I've never in my life been around more inspired people and more dedicated or motivated people than my co-workers," she says. "The students are wonderful, I had a wonderful conversation (about them) with my assistant principal last night. I have not, in the five months I've been here, had one fight in my classroom, or any disrespectful words said, only respect and appreciation for the work I do. I've had students come up to me and thank me."

The news gets better: Similar programs, such as Teach For America and New York City Teaching Fellows, are sprouting up elsewhere in the city.