Law School Launches Scholarship for Teach for America Participants
They taught in classrooms with too few textbooks, working with poorly disciplined students ill-prepared to tackle work at their grade level. They came away with renewed appreciation for their students' spirit, the incredible effort needed to teach in an underprivileged neighborhood and the potential for law to make a difference in education.
Three members of Virginia's Class of 2012 are being honored for their service in Teach for America, a program that places top college graduates in the most disadvantaged school districts across the country to teach for two years.
As the inaugural recipients of the Teach for America Scholarship, Lindsey Chamness, Brock Riggs and Janice Wang will only pay half of their tuition during law school. In future classes the award will be given to five Teach for America alumni.
"Brock, Lindsey and Janice bring a unique experience and perspective to Virginia, " said Jason Wu Trujillo '01, senior assistant dean for admissions and financial aid. "I hope their presence enlivens the classroom discussion about the intersection of law and education."
"The Teach for America Scholarship is one of many ways Virginia encourages and honors those students and graduates who work in public service, " said Dean Paul Mahoney. "We are proud of the many Teach for America alumni who have studied at the Law School."
Janice Wang grew up attending public schools in Cleveland, in a majority-minority school district, where she noticed the disparities between students in honors classes and those who weren't. After graduating from Yale with a degree in history, she decided to join Teach for America because she wanted to pursue education policy work.
"It's really important to have firsthand experience and not to be talking about something I haven't seen, " Wang said. "It really is the biggest civil rights issue of our time. Talking about it or reading about it just isn't the same thing."
Wang was placed in the greater Philadelphia area, where she taught seventh-grade math and eventually eighth-grade English.
She soon found herself working 90 hours a week, planning lessons, calling parents and writing tests in her "free" time.
"It's a grueling workload, " she said. But perhaps most surprising was students' lack of discipline in the classroom. "I was surprised at how much anger was in the students."
But problems at home — having an abusive or drug-addicted parent, or a sibling in jail — frequently "created a barrier to their learning, " she said. Some students' skills were at the first- or second-grade level, while others were at the 10th, making it difficult to manage lessons.
"I learned how critical the issue of improving public education for low-income students in this country is, " Wang said.
She recalled an eighth grader who worked hard at school despite being pregnant. "It really is possible for things to change for them. Think of what they would do with a great school."
Wang's interest in law was sparked while taking an education law class on the way to getting her master's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania.
"It was fascinating to see how the law applies to situations I experienced in the classroom, " she said.
Wang also liked the idea of advocating for students in a new way. When considering which law school to attend, the scholarship made a difference.
"I think it's amazing that they have this scholarship at the school, " she said. "It really gives you more freedom to think about what law school would be the best fit for you."
Lindsey Chamness concentrated in international, East Asian and military studies as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, but decided she wanted to "do something beyond myself" after college.
She also taught in Philadelphia through Teach for America, working with middle school students on social studies and reading.
"It was very hard. It was certainly challenging more than anything, " Chamness said. "I grew up in a place where education was valued and put as a top priority, and I taught in a place where education was not valued."
But Chamness, who taught at a public charter school, soon found that one of her biggest obstacles was a lack of resources. "I had no money, no supplies — I was on my own."
There were no reading textbooks, and only 35 social studies textbooks. The experience "gave me the strength to fight for things that seem unbearably overwhelming."
"I became very close with my students, " said Chamness, who said she wanted students to get the idea that they can do whatever they want to do in life.
"I hope they were able to take something away from my class that they wouldn't normally have."
Chamness, who also worked on her master's degree while teaching, learned about herself too. "Although you may want to quit, you can't, because it's not just about you, " she said.
Chamness said she hopes to work for the government eventually, and is interested in national security law.
As a UVA Engineering School graduate, Brock Riggs had a particular interest in science and math education. After school, he wanted to teach, and in the end chose between a private school and Teach for America.
"It was a choice between something that was familiar and comfortable and something with which I had no experience, " he said.
In Teach for America he taught high school physics in Brownsville, Texas, where he faced a different school culture than the one he grew up with.
"The concept of homework was completely foreign to them, " he said, and a lack of textbooks made taking them home impossible. Even with handouts and creative assignments, "their participation in homework was a few percent."
"There's a tendency to want to let them off the hook, " Riggs said, but he learned to adjust their expectations.
"Overall it was a great experience. I learned a tremendous amount from it, " he said. But "it was very discouraging at points."
Many students had to be taught basic math skills in order to prepare to learn physics, and he also had to teach some biology and chemistry to help prepare students for mandatory tests.
"The kids were actually pretty great, " Riggs said. But "there's so much pressure to teach to the state test that principals kept getting replaced every two years. Everyone wanted a quick fix."
Riggs found that he made an impact on a few students. "Seeing the appreciation that those students showed made it worth it, " he said.
After his two-year term ended, he returned to the University of Virginia to earn his master's degree in materials science and engineering before deciding to apply to the law school.
Now on his way to becoming a lawyer, he's motivated to help reform the education system.
"If I can do something in the public policy realm to change science and math education, hopefully a law degree will help me do that, " he said. "I'm hoping to find out what sort of opportunities are out there."