Back to School: Magnet Graduates Take Lessons from Blair to Teach for America

by Priyanka Gokhale '08

As a senior at Columbia University last year, ’06 Magnet alumnus Varun Gulati was debating potential post-graduate job offers.  As an Operations Research major, he could have found a job in many large corporations or consulting firms, but he settled on an unlikely a choice – one that would transplant him to New Orleans to teach high school math.

Gulati was just one of 4000 plus college graduates to join Teach for America (TFA), a non-profit organization that places high-achieving students as teachers for two years or more in low-performing schools.  After a rigorous six-week teaching institute, Gulati transformed from a college student at Columbia to an Algebra 1 teacher at the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics high school.

Student to teacher

Gulati's academic background – starting with the Magnet program – inspired him to change inequalities in education elsewhere in the country. “I know I can make an impact given my fortunate background," he says.

He recalls coming home after a less-than-great test performance, only to find his math teacher Ms. Dyas had taken the time to call his mother about the result.  "There was always a teacher who was checking in on you or pushing you to the next level," Gulati says. In college, as a tutor in an underprivileged New York City middle school, he began to see the disparities in the quality of education nationwide. “There's a world of difference between the public education there and the public education that I got," he said. 

Kevin Fang, ’03 Magnet graduate and TFA alumni, remembers that the diversity issues at Blair sparked his interest in social issues.  “Given the racial makeup, [Blair] was a really interesting school to be in,” he says, citing the interesting intersection of race, class, and achievement.  He explored those interests in college through the Duke Center for Race Relations, which organized discussions about race, gender, and sexuality, among other issues.  Meanwhile, he majored in biology and psychology.  During his junior year, he learned that health can be impacted more by social standing than by personal biology, and he became more interested in health and medicine.

It was during his medical school application process that he was first approached by a TFA recruiter who encouraged him to send off an application.  His ideals matched the program’s goals perfectly – “Teach for America was doing through education what I wanted to accomplish through medicine,” he says – and the Case Western School of Medicine granted him a two-year deferral that allowed him to teach in Georgia.  Gulati also applied to TFA while applying to other jobs, but after reflecting on his previous summers spent working in the corporate world, he decided that he “needed something more fulfilling” and signed on to teach in New Orleans.

Back to math and science

Both Gulati and Fang realized how much they were needed right away.  Within his first month at the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics high school, Gulati saw the achievement gap present in the Algebra I class.  Students come from different backgrounds – some have been held back, others home-schooled – and results from his diagnostic test showed a range of abilities.  "I think the first 2 weeks were collectively a huge reality check on the achievement gap,” he says.  “One of the challenges will definitely be to pull them all onto the same level”

In these few weeks, he’s also realized that his students have problems deeper than the ability to solve for x.  He cites an article from the Times Picayune, “one in three kids were emotionally affected by [Hurricane] Katrina”. This fact was true in his classroom.

Kevin Fang helps his students dissect frogs
Fang also struggled with the achievement gap in his biology class at the School of Technology, Engineering, Math, and Science at D.M. Therrell High Education Complex (STEMS @ Therrell) in Atlanta, finding that students' motivations were limited by simply not knowing what was out there and how to achieve it.  "There were kids who wanted to be pediatricians but failed biology," he says.  "They were unable to see a purpose in the fundamental courses...unable to put those courses into a longer scheme of things."  To help his students put biology into a real life context, he taught by relating topics like Punnett Squares to real issues like cancer and sickle cell anemia.

Fang realized that the students needed more than a good teacher, because many of them were growing up without a male mentor. He quickly adapted to fit that role.  "[I] started thinking 'what if these were my kids?'" he says.  "It was weird because I was 22 and they were 14."

Seeing the effects of social and experiential poverty on his students motivated Fang to make his time at STEMS @ Therrell as meaningful as possible.  He took the classes on field trips to the beach, aquarium, and local colleges to show them all that they could achieve if they took the right steps.

Life after TFA

These experiences made Fang debate doing a third year of teaching – but he ultimately decided to make good on his deferral and head to Ohio for medical school.  But his work with children hasn't stopped there.  With some of his classmates, Fang has developed a program called "Case Horizons" that works with an engineering school in Cleveland to get students thinking about medicine.  Fifteen high school sophomores and juniors come in to shadow doctors, sit in on classes, learn anatomy, and get the social and personal perspective on a specific disease.

Fang's ultimate goal is to travel internationally for medicine and take kids with him to see what life is like in other countries - something he says would make the kids feel empowered and able to make a difference in their communities.

As Gulati is barely a month into his teaching stint, he hasn’t given much thought to life when his two years are up – though he can imagine himself continuing to teach high school math.  "Educational inequity has become an issue which I am passionate about seeing that I have been very fortunate to come from a Magnet public education background," he says, During the next two years, he hopes to identify the role where he can best give back and improve high school education.
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