“What is your definition of success?” Keith Brooks asked his fifth grade class. “If I was in a burning building and made it out,” 11-year old Derrick Brown responded. For many urban and rural students, success depends on survival. With few positive influences, these students find motivation and respect only in the classroom. Now in his second year with the 2003 Teach for America Corps, Brooks ’01 teaches fifth grade in Liberty City, Florida. A varsity football player at Colgate, Brooks earned top honors as a student athlete and the prestigious 1819 Award as a senior. Hoping to raise awareness among Colgate students, Brooks shared his experiences to a packed crowd in the ALANA Cultural Center Monday night. “Many of you will ask yourselves, ‘How can I make a difference in someone else’s life?'” Brooks said. “‘What can I do after Colgate?’ By far, my [Teach for America experience] has been the most rewarding and challenging thing I have ever done.” In its 14th year, Teach for America aims to eliminate educational inequity by recruiting the country’s most promising and diverse college graduates. Teach for America students commit two years to teach in the nation’s lowest-income communities, overcoming challenges to ensure that their students gain necessary academic skills. The Corps members have an immediate impact and become advocates for over 250,000 students. In the process, Corps members learn how to counter low academic achievement rates to ensure children have access to quality education. “It is dangerously ironic that we live in the richest country in the world, yet there is an overwhelmingly great disparity in the education that low and high income children receive,” Brooks said. According to recent statistics, educational disparities are greater in the United States than in almost all other industrialized countries. Children in low income areas are seven times less likely to attend a college or university. Teach for America looks to recruit people who understand and are willing to commit themselves to eliminating educational inequity in the classroom. “Students need teachers who truly believe in them,” Brooks said. “It’s unfortunate that no one wants to take ownership of what’s wrong with the gaps in our educational system.” Brooks decided to join Teach for America to have the unique opportunity of helping children formulate and achieve their goals in life without prohibition. “Kids should have the ability and opportunity to dream,” he said. “They should have the opportunity to turn their dreams into reality and have the tools needed to do that. They need to have someone in the classroom who believes in them.” During a typical school day, Brooks commutes over an hour to his school, picks up his students, deals with personal and behavioral issues, sets a positive tone and reinforces certain skills throughout the day. He focuses equally on academic and life skills. “It’s like putting on your best show,” he said. “You have to have so much energy.” For Brooks, teaching is like being an artist or painter. “You need to go into the classroom with a blank canvas about everything you already know,” he said. “Give every child a new canvas and allow [him or her] to paint a picture for the future and indicate what [he or she wants] it to be.” That picture, according to Brooks, can many times be “beautiful.” In 1989, Princeton University graduate Wendy Kopp put her senior thesis into action by creating Teach for America. One year after putting her plan into action, 500 charter Corps members began teaching in low-income communities in six regions. Since then, Teach for America has continued to grow and expand into new regions. Currently, there are 3,000 Corps members in 21 regions, from Miami to Los Angeles. To be successful in the short-run, Corps members are expected to go beyond traditional expectations and reach beyond current resources and time constraints of schools. In spite of these challenges, Brooks believes there have been great successes. “We can ensure that every child has the opportunity to receive a great education,” he said. “We get to be leaders with a tremendous responsibility right out of college who can make a difference immediately with these children. You really set yourself up to make long-term changes.” Of the nearly 9,000 Teach for America alumni, many continue to make an impact on the challenges facing children in low-income areas – through educational policy, government, law, journalism, business and medicine. As the Teach for America mission statement reads, “We can in our lifetime see the day when children growing up in low-income communities have the same educational opportunities as those growing up in high-income communities.” “There’s still so much to be done,” Brooks said. “The teacher in a classroom affects the most change in a child. We can come to a place where all students receive their equal share of good teachers.” Brooks believes that the mission of Teach for America really works – to take dedicated people who see a problem and want to genuinely do something about it. “The hope of closing these educational gaps is still very much alive,” he said. “Think about if you didn’t have access to the education you’ve received.” The program selects applicants who have demonstrated academic achievement, high levels of personal responsibility, success in the face of challenges, the desire to work relentlessly to close the achievement gap and the ability to influence and motivate others. In 2003, 16,000 applicants applied and 2,200 were accepted. The average grade point average was a 3.5 for accepted applicants. More information can be found at www.teachforamerica.org. The deadline for the first round of applications is Sunday and the second deadline is February 15, 2005.