Barros (L), a sixth grade math problem solving teacher at Roxbury Prep, and Will Austin, the school’s former principal and current COO for Uncommon Schools. (Astrid Lium photo)
“I always knew that I wanted to be in education and teach,” says Roxbury native Titciana Barros. “But I had to get into a classroom.”
With the help of a program called Teach For America (TFA), Barros found a classroom at her alma mater, the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. The 22-year-old now instructs sixth grade math problem solving — a class she took more than a decade ago — and coaches the Roxbury Prep girls’ basketball team.
Founded in New York City by Princeton alumna Wendy Kopp in 1989, TFA is a non-profit organization that aims to narrow the education gap in the United States. The program enlists recent college graduates and professionals from various fields to teach for a minimum of two years in low-income communities.
TFA has been in Boston since 2009 and continues to expand. There are currently more than 160 teachers, concentrated primarily on the east coast, teaching K-12 students throughout Massachusetts.
Barros learned about the organization while volunteering for Boston College’s (BC) AHANA Leadership Council (ALC), a minority student association whose acronym stands for “African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American.”
“I grew up in an environment where I saw the achievement gap,” says Barros. “It was very eye-opening for me.”
She applied to TFA during her senior year at BC and was accepted immediately. Barros graduated last May, underwent teacher training in August and then started teaching at Roxbury Prep at the start of the 2011 school year.
Boston was her first choice for school placement, followed by New York City. Barros mentioned Roxbury Prep in her interview, but did not expect to work there. “I think that they thought I wanted to come back,” she says. Happily returning to her old neighborhood, Barros notes that Roxbury Prep, which is adding the fifth grade next year, has grown in both space and student population since she attended the school.
The majority of TFA teachers consist of recent college graduates like Barros from various backgrounds across the country. According to Kaitlin Gastrock —TFA’s regional communications director in Boston— in 2011, students from about 1500 schools applied. Many were from Ivy League institutions.
“We make sure we go to colleges around the country and recruit teachers who have what it takes in the classrooms,” she says.
Gastrock claims that the program strives to include geographic, financial, racial and ethnic diversity, also noting that “it helps to have a shared background” when matching teachers with schools.
Applicants also include professionals seeking a career change. Says Barros, “They want something new and they’re bringing in different perspectives.” Certified teachers were among the 48,000 applicants in 2011, although certification is not required for acceptance.
During her time thus far at Roxbury Prep, Barros has learned a lot about student discipline and takes a particular interest in improving it. “I love the structure and discipline here,” she says. “I love the uniforms.” She hopes to take the positive qualities at the school and replicate them elsewhere.
“I want to fix broken schools or open new schools,” she says. “Academically, students are not scoring or being pushed to their limit.”
Gastrock says that teachers tailor their lessons to the individual needs of the students. Although every class is different, she claims, the benchmark of TFA classrooms is to fit about one and a half years’ worth of education into one year.
“The teachers find out where students need to be,” says Gastrock. “[TFA] helps teachers motivate students and make them more engaged and interested.”
Barros agrees, noting that she loves the idea of teachers as mentors and friends, as well, imparting knowledge to students.
She says she is excited about finishing up her first year teaching at Roxbury Prep and plans to continue teaching even after the minimum two-year requirement.
In tandem with her classes and coaching at Roxbury Prep, Barros is now enrolled in graduate classes at Boston University, where she will earn her masters in teaching.
“I wake up every morning wanting more and wanting to do more for my kids,” she says.