Alumnae helps impoverished children: Through Teach for America, former student aids at grade school

by   Posted on March 29th, 2010 in Uncategorized

By Ethan Vaughan, Asst. News Editor

“I had a parent come up to me, crying. She said, ‘My child can read.’”

That moment epitomized what got Marissa Herrmann out of bed early every morning five days a week, kept her going in the face of economic obstacles and gave her the strength to face down a classroom of teenagers who sometimes begrudged her presence.

Herrmann, 23, is a participant in Teach for America, which sends high-achieving college graduates to public schools in impoverished areas in the nation.

According to the group’s mission statement, its goal is “to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.”

At an age when many of her peers are lugging backpacks and sitting behind desks, Herrmann is at the front of the classroom, responsible for instilling knowledge in the minds of special education students at Southeast Middle School in Baton Rouge, La.

While a senior at George Mason University and majoring in communication, Herrmann applied to the Teach for America program and was subjected to a rigorous selection procedure.

“It was the craziest interview process I’ve ever been in in my life,” Herrmann said when interviewed by Broadside in 2008. “But it was worth it.”

Two weeks following her graduation in May 2008, Herrmann was inducted as a Teach for America corps member and shipped off to Arizona State University for a month, where she received a crash course in teaching basics.

“I was thrust into a fifth-grade classroom with literally no teaching experience,” Herrmann said. “After that, I started immediately in Baton Rouge on Aug. 8, 2008 with 45 special education students and 15 regular ones.”

While Herrmann was forewarned that she would be entering an economically distressed environment (before her departure in 2008, she told Broadside that “America’s greatest injustice is educational inequality”), she says that the extent of the deprivation and lack of access to resources were shocks she could not have been prepared for.

“There were extreme behavior problems,” Herrmann said. “There were students who were completely unmotivated to work. There were 15-year-olds who could barely write their letters. I had one 17-year-old student who was in eighth grade. I thought, ‘When I was 17, I was a freshman at George Mason.’ These students have really big troubles.”

Herrmann teaches 13- to 17-year-olds with literacy gaps, with the goal of preparing them for the English language portion of the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) test that all students must pass to advance to high school.

“Some of these children are smarter than I ever was,” Herrmann said. “They just lacked the same basic knowledge that I had. There’s a whole population of students not getting the same education as I did, or as anyone middle class or higher did. The education gap is huge. If they’re coming
to middle school and they can’t read, they’ve obviously been failed [by the system].”

Herrmann never lost sight of her objective. Maintaining high expectations and working with parents were powerful tools used in meeting her goals.
“It’s like if you’re a coach and you want your team to play with better people,” Herrmann said. “I’m making sure I never lower the bar.”

Help also came from an unlikely source: her inexperience.

“They tell middle school teachers not to smile, but letting [the students] know you care can make a difference,” Herrmann said. “I was 21 and I came with an open mind, with the outlook that I’m young and learning and growing. I had naive confidence, and that really benefited me.”

As for the educational system, Herrmann minced no words.

“It’s ridiculous and embarrassing,” she said. “It’s almost a national security issue. It’s not these students’ fault they grew up in low-income communities.”

Whatever Herrmann is doing, it seems to be working. Teach for America aims for its corps members to improve student performance by two grade levels, and Herrmann’s students are on track for three and a half.

“My lines are never perfectly straight,” Herrmann said. “But I did a lot with what I was given. I feel like I’ve genuinely watched my students become happier people.”

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