President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Teachers in the Nation’s Service
November 4, 2009
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation, informally known as Teacher Prep, a small but dynamic academic program that has enabled almost 900 Princetonians to enter the classroom as fully certified teachers and to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with thousands of schoolchildren in New Jersey and beyond.
There are many paths to teacher preparation—from long established schools of education to national initiatives such as Teach for America, founded by Wendy Kopp ’89—and among them, Teacher Prep has proven to be highly effective. It is telling that more than 60 percent of its graduates are still engaged in classroom instruction five years after they graduate, well above the national average. But perhaps the surest proof of Teacher Prep’s success can be found in the work of its graduates, who are changing young lives for the better. Few if any will reach the front page of The New York Times, but their impact—and importance to this nation’s future—is nonetheless far-reaching.
Take, for example, David Ponton ’09, Sean Hammer ’08, and Stefanie Lawlor ’04, who have won rave reviews at Ewing High School, just a few miles from Princeton. Teaching social studies, science, and math respectively, these alumni represent the largest concentration of Princeton-educated teachers in any single school and share a common determination to open as many doors as possible for their students. In a society that has historically undervalued teachers, their principal believes that the very presence in his school of three Princetonians sends an eloquent social message in and of itself.
Other graduates of Teacher Prep have put their stamp on schools from the ground up, including David Hill ’00 and Jason Griffiths ’97. Until he assumed a leadership position in Memphis City Schools last year, David was the founding principal of Soulsville Charter School, an inner-city school that, to use his metaphor, prides itself not on fixing broken windows—keeping students out of trouble—but on creating stained-glass windows that hold them to the highest possible standards of behavior. Reflecting Memphis’s rich musical heritage, the school has made music a key component of its curriculum, with every student participating in the Soulsville Symphony Orchestra, a string-and-rhythm orchestra that has performed for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, and John Legend.
For his part, Jason is the founding head master of the Brooklyn Latin School and a product of New Leaders for New Schools, a program co-founded by Jon Schnur ’89 to revitalize the leadership of America’s urban schools. This selective public high school offers students from across New York a classical education, including Latin and Greek, Socratic seminars, and training in declamation. In a school where minorities constitute nearly 90 percent of the student body and where nearly 60 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, Jason’s goal is to provide his students with the tools they need to “choose their path in life,” the most powerful gift, he believes, that anyone can give.
Teacher Prep has inspired still other graduates to approach the educational challenges that we face as a country from a different angle. Jennifer Jennings ’00, for example, has just completed her doctorate in sociology at Columbia University in her quest to “understand how students’ opportunities at school and home structure their life chances, and how a range of education policies help to reduce or exacerbate racial and socioeconomic inequalities.” And Sam Yoon ’91, a Boston city councilor and recent candidate for mayor, credits his time in Teacher Prep and subsequent classroom experience with his decision to enter politics, noting that it opened his eyes to social inequities and the bifurcation of American education into one system that works and one that does not.
Last but not least, there are Teacher Prep alumni like Christopher Shephard ’98, who have served this nation by serving others. As an education adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development, he joined colleagues from a number of international organizations in assisting Afghanistan’s ministry of education to build hundreds of new schools, train thousands of teachers, and increase enrollments from 900,000 under Taliban rule to more than 6 million today. No mean achievement!
Having taught high school for two years in West Africa, I can say that there is nothing more important than broadening young minds or creating an environment in which this process can take place. That is the ultimate goal of Teacher Prep, and one it achieves supremely well.