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Strength In Numbers

“When I found out I wasn’t crazy.”

Such was famed feminist Gloria Steinem’s response to a question posed by writer Malcolm Gladwell during a panel session this weekend at Teach For America’s 20th-Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C. Steinem was responding to a Gladwell query about when she knew she had been successful in her campaign for equal rights for women.

The sentiment she was describing — a sense of calm and comfort upon realizing the presence of like-minded people who supported and were engaged with her struggle, who shared similar beliefs and the conviction to act on those beliefs — rang true for me this weekend.

Of the roughly 11,000 current and former Teach For America corps members gathered in Washington, the overwhelming majority had taught and/or were teaching in a school with another corps member. I didn’t, and I missed the camaraderie that came with working alongside someone who was recruited because of shared experiences and trained on the same principles. Working upwards of 60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks over the last few years has gotten tiring without the reinforcement of like-minded colleagues acting in concert.

Thus I feel rejuvenated after 36 hours of immersion in the wacky world of Teach For America. A Friday night dinner with founder and CEO Wendy Kopp was followed by an evening reception, where I was delighted to find myself around a hotel bar sometime past 11:30 p.m. in deep conversation about educational inequity in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Saturday brought more of the same as Teach For America chose to mark its 20th anniversary less by celebrating its successes than by imploring its corps members to be relentless in pursuing systematic change in public education. The morning plenary had former New York City chancellor Joel Klein, fired up by his newfound freedom from administrative constraints, delivering a refreshingly candid assessment of the current state of affairs and our collective need to revolutionize it. Former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee, Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffery Canada, KIPP co-founder Dave Levin, and Los Angeles superintendent-elect John Deasy challenged us to confront and change the status quo.

Numerous networking opportunities and a plethora of panel sessions followed in a day that was quintessentially Teach For America — i.e. methodically organized and packed-to-the-gills.

The closing plenary brought the house down. A student orchestra from a KIPP school provided backup as singer-songwriter and Teach For America board member John Legend played three songs. President Obama delivered a videotaped message, and Arne Duncan gave an earnest, forthright address that made me even more grateful he is at the head of the Department of Education. Current and former corps members followed, relating stories about what they are doing to support educational equity. The theme was “What role will you play?” and as the speakers relayed anecdote after anecdote a growing sense of angst spread throughout the room. We are a group of doers, but we are also of a generation with well-chronicled indecisiveness about our career paths, and this question prompted excitement with a healthy dose of anxiety.

Of course, provoking such sentiment was the clear goal of the Summit organizers. Twenty years after Kopp user her senior thesis to launch the organization, the achievement gap festers as insuperably as ever. While reformers inside and outside of Teach For America have made real and significant gains in that time, a child with the bad luck of being born into a low-income rural or urban family still faces extremely high odds of having a low-quality educational experience and dealing with the diminished future prospects that follow.

As such, the day was overwhelmingly oriented around how to improve outcomes for low-income kids of color, the primary group on the wrong side of the achievement gap. While there was a striking juxtaposition too many qualifications of a crowd of mostly white people of privilege buzzing about ways to derive better educational results for minority children in poverty, the focus was undeniably students-first.

And it needs to be. One-hundred percent of the 11,000 folks in the Washington Convention Center Saturday graduated from a four-year college — we are the fortunate ones. It is for African-American and Latino communities, where 19 and 12 percent of the population, respectively, graduate from a four-year college, that we work. And after a spirited weekend of refreshing reinforcement from like-minded colleagues, we return to that work with increased vigor.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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