Mark Tamisiea (above), in his second year with the Inner City Teaching Corps, knows how strong a factor encouragement can be to young students.
Why do they do it? Why do talented graduates from top-notch colleges forgo lucrative jobs and grad school to live with half a dozen like-minded young adults and dedicate two years to teaching in Chicago's inner city? And for $5 a day? Since 1991, that's exactly what a number of our universities' brightest have been doing.
The Inner City Teaching Corps (ICTC), a Chicago-based volunteer program, "brings together dynamic young women and men to work in the spirit of service and helping others help themselves." The program was founded in 1991 by Chicagoan Pat Ryan, who worked as an inner-city teacher himself after finishing Georgetown University. Identifying the crying need for help and hope for Chicago's inner-city youth, Pat conceived ICTC as a way to energize grade schools with the enthusiasm and creativity motivated college grads can bring to any endeavor.
Ryan's dream has attracted Jesuit support. Fr. Leo O'Donovan, SJ, Georgetown's president, encouraged Pat to pursue his dream and put him in touch with Fr. Larry Reuter, SJ, rector at Loyola University Chicago, who threw considerable support into the project. Bp. George Murry, SJ, takes time from his duties as auxiliary bishop of Chicago to serve on ICTC's board. Other Jesuits serve as support people for ICTC's current crew of 27, and Chris Devron, SJ, serves as executive director, relieving Pat of day-to-day responsibilities.
ICTC also draws strength from the hundreds of applicants who hail from Stanford, Georgetown, Boston College, and Holy Cross, among many other schools. The sixteen selected each year go through an intensive summer training institute at Loyola University Chicago. By Labor Day, Corps members are putting chalk to chalkboard at parochial schools in some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, earning that $5 a day, and living in communities.
These exceptional people commit to four "living realities": teaching as service, simple lifestyle, faith-based community, and spirituality. The reasons are as varied as Corps members themselves.
Chicago's Altgeld Gardens sounds, just by its name, like an upscale part of town. Nothing could be further from the truth. The children at Our Lady of the Gardens (OLG) School live amidst the city's worst poverty. The air they breathe is tinged with toxins from nearby factories in Hammond and Gary, Indiana. The ground they walk is a landfill.
But the fifth graders who come every day to Jennifer Costa's classroom find sanctuary. Greeted with bulletin board slogans such as "Tomorrow's success begins today," they hunker down to a day of learning.
They are just back from recess, and Jen starts a spelling lesson with fast-paced drill, then moves right into workbook practice. "What you don't finish in class you'll have for homework," she announces matter-of-factly. Groan. Seven new vocabulary words become the next focus of attention: defining them, using them in sentences, finding their synonyms and antonyms.
Jen was born and raised in Swansea, Mass. Education runs in her family: both her parents are school principals. A 1995 Holy Cross honors grad who majored in history, Jen honed her teaching skills as an intern at a grade school and was a "Best Buddy" with a mentally handicapped girl for four years.
ICTC allows Jen to combine her love of teaching with her desire to serve. It has also been a "mind-blowing experience." "What I find most challenging are the deep effects of poverty on children," she says. "Apathy, anger, and shutdown are big roadblocks in kids' learning."
But Jen remains optimistic in the midst of the bleak reality her students live in. Her firm but gentle demeanor, her youth and energy constantly remind her students to think positive about tomorrow's success.
The eighth graders at OLG are huddled in groups of four. Khari Hunt monitors their progress. Flanking the crucifix on the wall are quotations: "Up, you mighty raceÑAccomplish what you will," and "Without struggle, there is no progress." The students are engrossed in an exercise in cooperative learning.
"Your job is to make sure that the recorder, the clarifier, and the reporter in your group do their jobs," Khari tells them. He has an air of quiet confidence, and students feel comfortable with him, but they know he expects nothing less than their best. Khari knows the importance of teaching content, of promoting independence in learning, and of getting students to teach and learn from each other.
A Denver native and a product of a supportive family, Khari was an honor student in political science at Morehouse in Atlanta who turned down many job offers to teach in ICTC.
"I once thought I'd teach in my twilight years, when I'd have a wealth of knowledge to share," he says. "But something in me said now is the time to do this." His college interest in urban policy led him to work in public housing and ultimately at ICTC.
"When you're in it every day, you learn so much about poverty, about family relations or the lack thereof, and you start to strategize. I hope to show students that it's a big world outside of the Gardens and there's a way out through the choices they make."
Students in Meg Flynn's fifth grade class at the Jesuits' St. Procopius Parish and School in Pilsen, Chicago's Mexican village, have names like Flavio, Marisol, Armando, Gladissa, and Eligio. Today's religion class is really a planning session for a prayer service her class will lead on the Stations of the Cross. Meg runs a lively brainstorming session on how to make the prayer service meaningful for the rest of the school. Students' hands shoot up and they shout "A play!" "Drawing!" "Singing!" Meg, as animated as her students, takes it all down on the board.
A native of Dublin, N.H., Meg was senior class president at Fairfield University and captain of the women's soccer team. Her own family was strong on support and love, two things sorely missing in the lives of many of her students.
"School needs to be a place where kids have security and love. With these two things, you can do anything."
Meg laughs as she recalls how she once was in the same boat as some of her struggling kids: "In second grade, a teacher labeled me learning disabled. As if that weren't enough, I was a klutz. I couldn't do anything right; I was a disaster! But little by little, with Mom and Dad's help, I pulled it together. I can help some of these kids do the same."
On a bulletin board, large letters spell out, "If I believe myself, I can never be defeated." Not a bad motto for any class of fifth graders.
The afternoon sun pours through the windows of Mark Tamisiea's classroom at Our Lady of Peace School on Chicago's South Side. Blue-clad, squirming, chatting fifth graders pull out reading books. Mark has his work cut out for him containing his students' energy level, boosted by lunch and recess a period ago.
"Eyes on me," he gently commands, waiting for the undivided attention of all twenty students. His own demeanor bespeaks the calm he asks of his students. He paces the aisles, calling on students to read out loud, a paragraph at a time, praising some for the clarity of their reading, encouraging others to stay with it, hard words and all.
Mark's room is a far cry from his hometown, Omaha, and his school, Boston College. Mark majored in political science and philosophy, founded a human rights organization, and did volunteer work at home and abroad. He also found time to captain B.C.'s Ultimate Frisbee team to successive berths in national tournaments.
Mark calls himself a bit of a dreamer. One dream is to develop a critical-thinking program for students at Our Lady of Peace and also for people in the neighborhood. Mark wants to work with psychologists and other specialists to promote leadership through critical thinking and strategizing for the future. He also wants to pursue an MA in education at Loyola University Chicago. "I believe in committing to seeing something or someone through," he says. "That's what ICTC is all about."
Coming into ICTC, few Corps members have teaching experience. But by the end of two years, they are seasoned veterans in that art and profession, and they are students of the school of life. "Of those to whom much is given, much will be expected" is the aphorism these Corps members have chosen to act upon as members of ICTC.
And the children of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods are the richer for it.
The author of this article, Raymond Guiao, SJ, just completed his first year of studies at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.
Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, S.J., [email protected] Copyright(c) . Created: 7/18/96 Updated: Thursday, September 12, 1996