Grand Valley alumni Teach for America

Grand Valley alumna Jill DeLeeuw said she was prepared for a challenge when she signed up for Teach For America, a national corps of recent college graduates who teach in urban and rural public schools for two years.

I didn't know what to expect my first days coming into the school year,said DeLeeuw, who is teaching sixth grade in Charlotte North Carolina. I knew that this year would be tough; I knew I would see some things at my placement school that I never would have seen in the school where I grew up.

But nothing, she said, could have prepared her for the reality she found. Only 56 percent of students last year scored at or above their reading level on year-end tests the average sixth grader reads at a fourth grade level. Only 35 percent scored at or above grade level for math. More than 80 percent of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunch.

While it sounds discouraging, DeLeeuw said her students have been inspiring.

Within the first four months of teaching, I definitely encountered my fair share of ups and downs, days when I felt completely overwhelmed and other days when I felt that my students accomplished so much, DeLeeuw said.

Teach For America recruits exceptional recent college graduates of all academic majors who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools and become leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity. Today, more than 5,000 Teach For America corps members work in 26 urban and rural areas affected by the achievement gap. They work hard to make sure their students achieve academic success despite the inequities they face. An independent study by Mathematica Policy Research showed that Teach For America schools average 10 percent more progress in math and reading than is normally expected.

Every child regardless of race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, whether they're in a big city or rural town deserves excellent education, said Eric Isham, recruitment director for Teach For America. Every child can learn, it's just that they're not always given the same opportunities.

Isham is responsible for Teach For America recruitment at Grand Valley. He said a total of seven Grand Valley grads have signed up for the corps four of them in 2007. But the organization has identified Grand Valley as an up-and-coming school,and has stepped up recruiting here.

Teach For America sees the potential that Grand Valley has with high achievers, commitment to diversity, and commitment to leadership. Some of the programs Grand Valley has we think are a good fit with Teach For America, Isham said.

Isham said Teach For America looks for students who exhibit patterns of past achievement. Recruits have an average GPA of 3.5, but he said they look at much more than merely grades.

Grand Valley alumni Alan Dunklow (top), Jill DeLeeuw and Rob Daigneau are among the more than 5,000 Teach for America corps members working to eliminate the achievement gap in urban and rural schools.

Photos by Courtney Newbauer

We look for people who have demonstrated perseverance, because we know that teaching can be a difficult challenge, Isham said. We want someone who has demonstrated the ability to overcome difficulties in the past.

Isham added that Teach For America looks for student leaders, because recruits need to be able to motivate people.

DeLeeuw, of Hudsonville, graduated in April '07 with a degree in German. She is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi honors society and the German honors society Delta Phi Alpha. She served as German Club president and was named the outstanding German student for 2006-07 academic year. She also won an Oldenburg writing award for a personal memoir she wrote after visiting Nazi concentration camps.

DeLeeuw decided to apply to Teach For America the summer after her junior year. Everyone told me I should be a teacher, she said, adding that she resisted the idea at first. And then it just was kind of a light bulb I couldn't see myself doing anything else but teaching

While she first looked into the program for personal reasons, it was Teach For Americas larger mission that appealed to her.

Ultimately when I found out what Teach for America was trying to do with closing the achievement gap with inner-city and rural students, it became a mission for me, she said. As soon as I found out that the achievement gap was such an epidemic in our country, then it became more about that than it was about my own career goals. These kids aren't getting the right kind of education. They deserve the education that I had, or kids that live in more resourceful communities have, and they're not getting it. I said to myself I have to do this.

It was a similar motivation that drove Robert Daigneau, a Brighton native and another recent Grand Valley grad, to enlist in Teach For America. Daigneau said he was inspired to get involved in closing the education gap after working on a fundraising project to stock a library at the inner-city Burton Middle School in Grand Rapids. The Student Senate raised more than $19,000 through the Battle of the Valleys competition against Saginaw Valley State University. The new library was dedicated in March 2007. Before the fundraising campaign, the library had less than 100 paperback books and while the library contained a total of 7,500 books, most were outdated.

I couldn't believe that their library was half-empty and it didn't even have a single computer for them to use, Daigneau said. I am a product of my education. I went to a new elementary school, I had middle school teachers that pushed me, I had advanced classes in high school. Every single one of those pieces put me on the path to come to Grand Valley and really gave me an opportunity to succeed. Some kids are being denied that opportunity at an early age, and I don't think that's fair. There's no reason why everyone shouldn't have an equal education and equal opportunities to succeed.

Now, Daigneau is teaching eighth grade at Coleman Middle School in Greenville, Mississippi.

Daigneau was a student in Grand Valley's Honors College. He was elected to the Student Senate twice, serving as the vice president of finance one year. He was inducted into the Omicron Delta Kappa national service leadership fraternity and a winner of the Thomas M. Seykora Award for Outstanding Contribution.

Another alumnus, Alan Dunklow, is teaching at an inner-city Baltimore high school through Teach For America. Like Daigneau and DeLeeuw, Dunklow was active on campus. He served on the Student Senate for two years, including one year as vice president of the Political Affairs Committee. He was president of the College Democrats and volunteered as a consultant in the Writing Center. He was inducted into several honor societies, including the Phi Kappa Phi academic honors society, the Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honors society, the Phi Sigma Alpha political science honors society and the Phi Alpha Theta history honors society. He was the 2007 recipient of the Venderbush Leadership Award at Grand Valley.

Dunklow, a Suttons Bay native, said he first started thinking about Teach For America when he received an e-mail from a recruiter.

He said my experience in student government would make me a good candidate for leadership, Dunklow said. I went on their Web site and read about their mission, and it's one that I believe in. If we set high expectations for all our students, and invest them in their own education, they will begin to see that graduation and college are real possibilities.

Dunklow teaches American government and hopes his students will become more engaged in their world. This is probably the biggest impact I can have in two short years. They might not learn to love politics or history, but they will learn to communicate effectively, so that they can pursue their own interests.

The teachers in the program see many benefits of their own, including getting to know a new region of the country.

Dunklow said he is enjoying his time in Baltimore. It's got a nice fusion of culture and good food. It's made up of several tight-knit neighborhoods. I like that sense of community and look forward to becoming a part of it.

Jill DeLeeuw took her 6th grade class to a Renaissance festival.
Some students couldn't afford to go, so she asked friends and family to sponsor some students. She ended up raising more than $700. From the funds that were raised, there was some money left over to start a bank account to be used for future field trips or other incentives for the students.


Page last modified March 17, 2014