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Teach for America recruiter knows both sides of educational divide

By Ashley Abbott

Vanessa Douyon

Vanessa Douyon had a very personal reason for joining Teach for America in the fall of 2010: She’s been on both sides of the educational divide.

Her motivation, she says, stemmed from “seeing my parents break the bank to get me to private school, then watch that change when my brother came along. Eventually ending up at a pretty rough school in Miami when my Dad got laid off. Didn’t seem right that the kind of school I got to go to depended on how many of us had to go to school or how much my parents made.” 

Douyon put her conviction into practice with a two-year Teach for America stint teaching fifth-grade mathematics at New Orleans College Prep, a charter school in Central City. It’s one of 58 charter schools in the city – making New Orleans the only city in the nation where more than half of all of the public school children attend charter schools. Ninety percent of students in local public schools are black and classified as attending high-poverty schools.

Douyon is among the approximately 35 percent of Teach For America corps members who identify as people of color.

“My family in and of itself has a complicated identity, from Haiti -- a family with mixed French, Taino and African lineage,” Douyon says. “That’s probably even more complicated than being a light skinned black girl in New Orleans.”

But it gave her credibility with her students. Research suggests that when a student and teacher are of the same race, the teacher is more likely to serve as an effective role model, boosting students’ confidence and enthusiasm for learning. 

“If you walk through the hallways of most of our failing schools, you could count on one hand the number of white students,” Douyon says. “There are lots of reasons for that. But [Teach For America] serves mostly black and brown kids because right now, quality of school is tied to quantity of income … usually as a result of the relationship between property taxes and school funding, and because low income communities are black and brown -- and so are our most struggling schools.” 

Even though the public education system is in the hands of a number of bureaucratic organizations, both locally and nationally, the idea remains, at least in concept, that students should attend schools funded by their own neighborhoods. It has been shown that schools across the country located in higher socio-economic areas tend to produce students with higher grades and higher standardized test scores than students who live in areas with a lower socio-economic status. More than a quarter of New Orleans’ residents live in poverty, and 37 percent live in “asset poverty,” meaning that they could not support their household at or above the federal poverty line for more than three months if they were to become unemployed. 

In Louisiana, the projected number of prisons to build is based, at least in part, on how many second graders are failing to perform at second-grade reading level. Low literacy is the socio-economic factor prison inmates have most in common.

Teach for America combats such statistics by sending some 5,000 college graduates each year into 46 national regions, where they teach for two years in low-income schools. The goal of Teach For America is for its corps members to make both a short-term and long-term impact by leading their students to reach their full potential and becoming lifelong leaders for educational equity. 

Douyon saw joining the corps as a twofold experience, she says. First, as “an opportunity to try to give a kid like me an out,” and also as “a necessary experience given that I wanted to be an administrator or stay in the education sector long-term.”

To that end, Douyon stayed on in New Orleans when her TFA contract ended last year. Now, as a recruitment manger, she works with Tulane University, Louisiana State University and the University of Arkansas to enlist talented, motivated and determined leaders to join the fight for educational equity through the Teach For America program.

“At a very basic level, Teach For America brings life to the conversation of quality education,” Douyon says. “Right now, folks in New Orleans and around the country are hotly debating what’s best for kids and how we [need to work to] improve our schools.

“I think TFA has done a good job of finding some really quality leaders who have gone on to rally for our students -- as teachers, as administrators, as public officials, as nonprofit and for-profit organization leaders.” 

Douyon remains hopeful that one day the New Orleans public school system will offer equal education for all students.

“If I had the secret, I’d be education reform’s new poster girl,” she says. “I do have one strong feeling. When we’re trying to ‘improve’ or ‘fix’ something, we usually swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. I think there’s a strong need for our communities and our school leaders to work together in the best interest of our kids. 

“To that end, I would say the next step is to bring the pendulum back to center. As we change things … we should hold fast to the traditions, the history that make our communities rich, listen with curiosity to the needs and desires of our communities, and marry them with an incredible desire to get our kids academically on track so they have a shot at a good future.”


This article by Ashley Abbott is published as part of a service learning partnership between NolaVie and the students of Dr. Diane Grams' sociology classes at Tulane University.