Tyanna Alston dreaded Spanish class. She didn't see the point, and the teacher wasn't connecting with her. She failed the course.
Last year, as a junior at Charlotte's Phillip O. Berry Academy, she got into a new Spanish class, with a new teacher. Mr. McQuilkin made Spanish interesting, and Tyanna zoomed from flunking to earning an A. Still, she was just going through the motions.
This bothered Jimmy McQuilkin. His students were performing well on end-of-year tests, but that wasn't good enough. He wanted his students to "experience transformation" - to really love Spanish.
This school year, McQuilkin connected. Tyanna has taken off. She's writing stories and essays in Spanish. In her part-time work at Carolinas Medical Center, she helped deliver a baby and helped translate for the Latina mother. This summer, she will travel to the Dominican Republic with McQuilkin and a dozen other students for a week of service.
"He's really encouraging," Tyanna, 17, said. "He engages his students in the teaching. He reaches out to each student - if you need help, he'll help you."
McQuilkin came to Charlotte through Teach for America. Through TFA, thousands of the country's brightest college graduates commit to teach in some of the nation's poorest schools for two years. They are a small army, and an enormously important one, battling the persistent achievement gap plaguing public schools. Closing that gap, and reducing public schools' intolerable dropout rate, is beyond complicated. But at its core must be a student connecting with a smart teacher who cares.
TFA has been around since 1990, but its popularity and the quality of its applicants are at an all-time high. Just 10 years ago, fewer than 5,000 applied. Last year, 46,359 did. These are some of America's top young people: 18 percent of all Harvard seniors applied; at Yale, it was also 18 percent; 17 percent of Duke seniors applied and 15 percent of Princeton seniors applied. Despite applicants' credentials, seven out of eight don't get selected.
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