Accelerate Fellowship: A pipeline to excellence in education

For 26 years, Teach For America has trained and supported college graduates who have accepted their offer to teach. TFA’s mission is to provide all students with access to an excellent education. In 2016, TFA had 3400 Corps members teaching in schools throughout the U.S. These first-year teachers hailed from over 740 colleges and universities. TFA currently boasts more than 50,000 alumni, with nearly 70 percent still working in education.

This summer, TFA kicked off their newest initiative, the Accelerate Fellowship program. After a one-week orientation in Los Angeles, the 37 college students selected for this paid fellowship met with executives, industry innovators, and community leaders to develop real solutions to issues that affect education in three communities: Los Angeles, New Orleans, and the Rio Grande Valley. The fellows worked in each community for two weeks.

“TFA hopes to inspire students to become advocates for educational equity, realizing the impact they can make while simultaneously adding capacity to our partner organizations and TFA’s alumni work,” said Apollonia Gallegos, managing director of recruitment and early engagement.

Jon Stevens, managing director of development and strategies for TFA in the Valley, described the program as a “pipeline” giving TFA “access to education’s bright, promising leaders who will choose careers that have a social impact.”

Now, meet six of the 2017 Accelerate Fellowship Fellows:

Ana Barros

Ana is a senior at Yale. Born in Brazil, she lived in Valenzuela for eight years, in Panama for two years, and then in Cincinnati, where she graduated from high school and where her family still lives.

Ana felt the greatest inspiration during the fellows’ two weeks in the RGV. The issue presented to them here involved educational issues undocumented students face and how school districts can insure they receive the support they need. The fellows worked with professors at the The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s B3 Institute, where the focus is on making the university a bilingual, bicultural, and biliterate institution. The fellows helped B3 Institute staff develop a 44-page training module for university professors as UTRGV strives to become the first university to offer a bilingual program.

“It was life-changing to see the actual physical product we created,” Ana said. “It was a journey of discovering the importance of language and what it means to have language as an identity marker.” The fellows hope their product will convince professors that bilingualism is critical.

Ana, who is multi-lingual, learned a lot about herself during this process, too. “What I’ve really learned is that speaking other languages is not just a marketable asset. It’s who I am and where I come from.”

Ana has no doubt what she wants to do when she graduates.

“I want to teach,” she said.

Jessica Gonzales

Jessica is a senior at Michigan State University. From Mission, she went to high school in La Joya and graduated from Juarez-Lincoln High School. Jessica first declared elementary education as her major. However, despite her high grades, one test stood between her and continuing in the program, and she did not master it.

“This just solidified my desire to teach,” Jessica said. Jessica had to officially switch majors. She chose social relations and policy.

Jessica, too, felt the two weeks in the RGV had the greatest impact on her.

“It shaped the way I thought about the Valley because in the week we spent at UTRGV, I learned so much about the community I am from,” she said. “It was very emotional. It made me think about why it’s important to teach kids through a culturally relevant pedagogy.”

Jessica’s desire to teach began in third grade when she landed in the classroom of TFA teacher Madeline “Maddy” Mavrogordato. Her influence reached far beyond that wonderful year in third grade, although she left the Valley and later earned her PhD at Vanderbilt University.

“She came here every other summer to visit me and other kids from that class,” Jessica said. “She bought me books and school supplies.”

Then, during Jessica’s junior year in high school, her mother reached out to Maddy, now a professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Educational Administration, for help with the college application process.

“She flew me to Michigan, and I fell in love with Michigan State,” Jessica said.

Jessica’s setback at the university, along with her Accelerate Fellowship experience, solidified her desire to teach but completely changed her mind about where.

“I didn’t plan to come back to the Valley,” Jessica said. “Now I know I need to come back because I can relate to these kids. I had a teacher who put in the time and effort and raised the expectations for me. I can make a difference to kids who might be my own neighbors.”

Brennan Steele

Brennan is from Nashville, Tennessee and is a senior at Duke University. He is majoring in history and African American studies, and minoring in education. He plans to work in school leadership.

Brennan said the Fellows’ two weeks in Los Angeles impacted him the most. Their focus there was how the community could insure that students and their parents have access to true school choice.

“We learned about the polarization that exists between traditional schools and charter schools,” Brennan said.

For him, the most impactful lesson came from the discovery that, for parents, the choice was not based on systemic issues within the schools.

“They based their decision on which school was better for their child,” Brennan said. In L.A., he explained, many of the charters specialize in specific issues that affect students’ academic performance.

While in L.A., Brennan and the other Fellows had the opportunity to speak with parents and principals from both school systems. They also compared the school-choice ecosystem in L.A. to the ecosystem in other states.

“In Oklahoma, for example,” Brennan said, “the traditional schools and charter schools have found common ground and have come to an agreement. Now they are sharing resources.”

Brennan said this momentous truce happened when both sides realized they have a common goal.

“Our goal is to educate kids,” Brennan said.

Vanessa Lusa

Vanessa is from Willington, Connecticut, and, like Brennan, is a senior at Duke University. She is majoring in public policy and minoring in education. She plans to earn the distinction of being named a Fulbright Scholar, teaching in Spain. Vanessa’s ultimate goal is to play an integral role in the Education Reform Movement, training teachers to be better teachers and developing policies for recruiting and retaining the best teachers.

New Orleans offered the greatest challenge, and reward, for Vanessa. There, the focus was on how the community could offer a more holistic educational system, which includes academic standards, identity affirmation, and community engagement.

“Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, the community is still so affected,” Vanessa said. “In New Orleans, 100 percent of the schools in the Parish are charter schools. This has wildly changed the face of education.”

Vanessa said her experience prior to the Accelerate Fellowship was that teachers normally focus on one aspect of the desired holistic system.

“I was so inspired by the people we met who are doing all three of them and doing them well,” she said. “That mindset is what’s going to push education forward in the future.”

One organization the Fellows visited integrated arts into academics, using culture and the interests of the students to teach core subjects. For example, Vanessa said, they used music beats to teach math.

“In Spain, fingers crossed,” Vanessa said, “I hope to teach English, incorporating art or dance.” Vanessa has learned that an important goal for teachers is to engage their students.

Leeana Skuby

A Chicagoan, Leeana is currently a senior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. where she majors in sociology and minors in political science. Leeana plans to be an elected official at the state level where she can affect policy.

While in L.A., Leeana experienced a shift in her perspective about charter schools.

“I came in very opposed to charter schools,” she said.

Echoing what Brennan said, Leeana’s aha moment came when parents from both traditional and charter school systems expressed that they just wanted good schools for their children.

“I used to think of it on the macro level,” Leeana said. “Now my perspective is at the level of what is best for the students.” The macro level for Leeana had been that charter schools take money away from traditional public schools.

In L.A., it has become apparent that charter schools are almost exclusively for students with access to transportation, Leeana explained.

“This creates a concentration of poverty,” she said.

What she supports is a system that looks at three factors: What is better for kids? What is sustainable? What is equitable?

“It affected the framework I was operating under,” Leeana said. “You forget the human faces that go with the data.”

Alexander Rodriguez

A San Antonio native, Alex is a senior at Texas A & M University in College Station. His major is political science and his minor is urban planning. He plans to return to San Antonio to teach middle school math or science.

The Fellows’ two weeks in New Orleans had the greatest impact on Alex, especially having the opportunity to meet the people behind unCommon Construction.

“They have an apprenticeship program with high school students,” Alex said. “They build homes then sell them. They pay students, and they use the money they earn to pay for tuition, to buy a car or a laptop, or whatever they want to do.”

Apprentices must be at least 16 years old and currently enrolled in a participating high school in New Orleans. They must commit to working 10 hours per week, one day after school and all day Saturday. On their website (uncommonconstruction.org), you will find the nonprofit’s mission statement: unCommon Construction uses the build process to enhance learning and empower youth in a real-world, hands-on learning environment.

Alex felt truly inspired by Aaron Frumin, founder and executive director of unCommon Construction, while working with the group for three days.

“Aaron treated his students like adults and trusted them with the tools,” Alex said, “He allowed them to instruct adults, and I really respect that. The students were the site leaders. It humbled me and reaffirmed that we should trust students, give them more leeway, and believe in them a little more. It also reaffirmed that education should be student-centric and that we need to raise the expectations for our students.”

Alex said his high school principal, Joanne Cockrell, led this way.

“She allowed us to be ourselves,” he said.

Accelerate Fellowship

The Rio Grande Valley was the final site for the Fellows. They completed the Fellowship with group presentations. Each group chose one community they served over the summer and created a new, viable solution to address the issue presented in that community.

To learn more about the Accelerate Fellowship, visit

teachforamerica.org/fellowship/accelerate-fellowship .