St. Louisan gives back with Teach for America


For Jason Growe, who graduated from Ladue High School, stepping into his first day as an American history teacher at Roosevelt High School brought on mixed emotions: part excitement, tempered with fear.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t apprehensive,” Growe said.

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Growe, a St. Louisan and congregant of United Hebrew, is one of 120 people teaching in St. Louis area schools through Teach for America, a program that selects high-achieving recent college graduates to teach in inner city schools for two years.

“It wasn’t so much the public speaking that I was nervous about,” Growe said. “It was how well I could engage my students in the lesson.”

“People like to blame social situations and societal problems, especially in urban areas, as the reason why education fails,” he said. “Of course, curing those outside problems would help, but teachers more than anyone else can fix problems in education.”

A St. Louis native, Growe, 23, earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Indiana, so without any education coursework in college, the only classroom training he received was in Teach for America’s five-week summer institute.

“It was five very intense weeks,” said Growe, who traveled to Atlanta for his Teach for America training.

“I remember I woke up at 5:15 every day, and the latest I ever went to bed was 11:30,” he said. “They really prepare you well…I taught summer school at an Atlanta public school, and the rest of the time that I wasn’t teaching I would take seminars on classroom management skills, how to form a lesson and teach it to a class,” he said.

However, Growe soon found that no amount of training is quite enough for entering a class with over 30 students.

“You can take classes, but I don’t think it really fully prepares you for what you experience when you walk in that classroom,” he said.

Teach for America selects teachers based not on the education courses taken in college, but rather the leadership potential and life experience of each candidate. In fact, education majors don’t get preferential treatment.

“We’re looking for real leaders for the classroom,” said Dustin Odham, executive director for Teach for America in St. Louis.

Nationwide, only 12 percent of applicants are accepted into the program.

In St. Louis, about 90 Teach for America teachers taught in the St. Louis Public Schools district in the 2006-2007 school year, a total of 30 taught in the Normandy School District, Wellston Public Schools, and city charter schools. The program has been placing teachers in St. Louis since 2002.

“Essentially we’re looking for leaders who will go above and beyond whats expected to make sure their students will get the educational opportunities they deserve,” said Dustin Odham, executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis, and a former Teach for America teacher at Beaumont High School.

“We believe that the achievement gap that exists is the most pressing issue facing our country today,” Odham said, “and in order to attack it we have to find and recruit people who wouldn’t traditionally think about going into public education and get their leadership within the classroom.”

After a comprehensive application process, involving multiple written essays, a phone interview, in-person interviews, and a 5-minute lesson before a group of teachers and Teach for America staff, those selected for the program go through the five-week training period.

Teachers typically interview with individual schools, and district human resources staff and Teach for America staff finalize individual contracts. Teachers are paid normal starting teacher salaries by the districts themselves.

However, since Teach for America is a part of AmeriCorps, its teachers can also receive $4,725 in student loan forgiveness for each of the two years of their service.

Growe said he became interested in Teach for America when he was looking for work that was public service related.

“I care deeply about public education and I care about the St. Louis region, and this provided me the opportunity to do public service for both those areas I care about,” Growe said.

“I came into this thinking I would teach in my hometown,” he said.

So, after the first year of his teaching, is Growe ready for the second?

“Having a year under my belt, and knowing what to expect lets me take the experiences I have had over the past year and use that to become an even better teacher next year,” he said.

“I love my students,” Growe said. “I like to say that I’m learning as much from them as they’re learning from me.”