Reading Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America is inspiring, frustrating, exhilarating and exhausting. Inspiring because of the students who learn and grow and graduate despite violence, unwanted pregnancy and poverty. Frustrating because the Los Angeles Unified School District and the federal government want to make learning secondary to testing. Exhilarating because the four young teachers profiled in the book struggle, succeed and find joy in the hardest job there is. And exhausting because there is so much to absorb, so many acronyms and dates and names and histories to understand. In fact, reading this book is just like teaching in the LAUSD.
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Teach for America began in 1990 as the brainchild of Wendy Kopp. As a straight-A senior in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, she recognized the country’s desperate need to close the achievement gap between the wealthiest and the poorest students. Kopp saw the statistics: A poor student who makes it to high school has only a 50 percent chance of graduating. If he does graduate, he will likely leave school with the skills of an eighth-grader. Kopp came up with TFA as a way to solve this dilemma. Her idea was to create a teaching corps, not unlike the Peace Corps, where the participants were culled from the best colleges in the country. They did not have to be education majors or interested in teaching as a career. She would offer TFA as a stepping stone to their “real” life pursuits, as a two-year term of service that would make them even more attractive to law schools, businesses and industry titans. The program would give the millennial generation a chance to give back while enhancing their résumés.
TFA’s selection process was highly competitive. The young people chosen were the elite. After four weeks of rigorous “boot camp,” the corps members — CMs — were deemed ready to teach at the lowest-scoring and most-underserved schools.
Donna Foote, author and former Newsweek reporter, chronicles the first year for four new TFA recruits, two men and two women. Each was assigned to Locke Senior High School in South Los Angeles. It is undeniably one of the worst performing and most dangerous schools in the state, if not the country.
“Locke is a Crips school,” Foote writes. “The black gangs that surround it are all sets of that notorious Los Angeles street gang. Blue is the Crips’ color; their rivals, the Bloods, wear red. Dick Fukuda, the dean of discipline at Locke, reckoned there were more than a dozen Crips gangs operating on campus and the surrounding community in 2006. Unlike the Bloods ... the Crips are often at war with one another.”
And the Hispanic gangs are at odds with both the Crips and the Bloods. The lunchroom, quad and hallways are divided. By the middle of the 2005-2006 school year, “ ... nearly a dozen Locke students ... had died violent deaths since the first day of school.”
One of the recruits, history teacher Hrag Hamalia, has his first crisis in the first week when he sits a black kid among three Latinos. Soon they are fighting. Unaware that he is not allowed to touch students under any circumstances, and afraid the entire classroom will erupt, Hamalia literally throws the kids out into the hallway.
Taylor Rifkin is so tough that discipline in her ninth-grade English classes is not a problem. Then, early in her first semester, violence sends the school into “lockdown” and no one is allowed to leave the classroom. She’s terrified. “All she could see were images of Columbine,” writes Foote. The lockdown passes without incident. It’s the first of many.
Like several of his students, Philip Gedeon is black, and was raised by a single mother. Only a strict upbringing kept him off the streets, and he went to college on a 95 percent scholarship. A taskmaster in his classroom, Gedeon is shocked to see how many of his students consider him as much “the Man” as any white teacher.
Rachelle Snyder, who doesn’t have a biology degree and who received little extra training, is nonetheless assigned to teach biology to special ed students. Yet even though her students are “challenged,” she is denied books and lab materials. While she loves her students, she’s angry, confused and overwhelmed by her responsibilities and the lack of support.
Foote is at her best when she takes us into the classroom with these rookie teachers. She shows us what they eat for lunch, what they talk about together, how they feel every day. We’re with them as they write lesson plans and strategize late into the night, giving up their hobbies, parties and the life they had as college students. And Foote gets the high school students exactly right: Their speech patterns, their innocence and lack of sophistication despite their knowledge of violence, drugs and sex, their fear and their desire to please are wonderfully portrayed. The story gallops along.
That said, Relentless Pursuit bogs down in the endless TFA and LAUSD bureaucracies: too many names, dates and acronyms. The confusion and clunkiness are not entirely Foote’s fault; part of the problem is simply the world she is writing about, and it is Wendy Kopp’s too-cute penchant for labeling every position in TFA by initials. But Foote also lapses into litanies of facts and figures — important, though the details often seem endless and unnecessarily complicated. The one clear picture Foote gives us is that the system is incredibly complicated and absolutely dysfunctional.
This is a true story, not a movie. Gedeon’s math class doesn’t walk away with a trophy. Snyder’s students don’t test out of special ed. Many of Rifkin’s 10th-grade students go from fifth-grade reading comprehension to seventh-grade and, to Foote’s credit, the reader cheers. All four of the new TFA teachers she follows choose to continue at Locke for their second year. It seems remarkable, impossible and, again, a cause for celebration.
At the end of the book, Foote admits that so much must still be done. Teach for America is nowhere near reaching its goal of closing the “achievement gap.” Specifically, the news about Locke High School is not good: The gangs have grown and the school — despite becoming a Green Dot charter — is still dangerous and chaotic. Can TFA really make a difference? Donna Foote comes to no conclusion; perhaps because there isn’t one.
Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America| By DONNA FOOTE | Alfred A. Knopf | 352 pages | $25 hardcover
Diana Wagman is the author of the novels Skin Deep, Spontaneous and Bump.