TFA alumni discuss STEM crisis in low-income schools

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Ju’won Harris, a health educator at the Detroit-based Institute for Population Health, answers students’ questions about the Teach for America program with first-year medical student Kimi Warlaumnot at the Ford School of Public Policy Thursday. Buy this photo

By Yardain Amron, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 17, 2013

A panel of four Teach For America alumni and one current fellow sat before a small audience of students Thursday night to discuss the “crisis” in science, technology, engineering and math education — with the hope of luring more University students with science and mathematics backgrounds into the fellowship program.

STEM subjects are often neglected in low-income schools, the panelists said, yet they’re considered crucial toward students’ success in both college and workforce. Improving the United States’s competitiveness in these fields has been a priority of the Obama administration, which committed billions over the last several federal budgets toward improving STEM education.

“This year, there’s a huge need in the communities and school districts in which we place core members for science and math teachers at all grade levels,” Emily Pendergraft, regional TFA recruitment manager, said.

Teach for America is a non-profit organization that recruits and trains recent college graduates to teach full-time for two years in low-income public schools. Sixty-seven recent graduates from the University began teaching for TFA this semester.

The program has been praised for bringing young professionals into contact with students and also criticized for inadequately preparing fellows for the challenges of low-income schools, many of which are in urban areas.

At the panel, held at the Public Policy school, members discussed their personal experiences with children disillusioned with math and science.

Kimi Warlaumont, one of the panelists, said she was distraught upon discovering her seventh and eighth graders had received almost no prior science instruction. Students had become so accustomed to a never-ending flow of substitute teachers that when Warlaumont showed up for her TFA appointment, they believed she would be gone in two weeks.

University alum Julia Martorana, another panelist, is currently in her first semester of the TFA fellowship as a ninth-grade physics teacher in a Detroit school. She discovered that many of her students aspired to work in the automotive industry and that she tries to draw a connection between cars and physics to inspire her students.

“The way that we are approaching math and science education is really in a bad place,” said David Omenn, a TFA recruiter.

Only 11 percent of Black fourth graders score at or above proficiency in science, and by grade 12 only 4 percent of those students are still proficient, according to Omenn’s presentation. But TFA says students with at least Algebra II on their transcript are twice as likely to receive a four-year degree.

State Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) attended the event and said the lack of STEM-educated students is a “20-year-old problem” that requires action by legislators. Zemke announced this week that he and state Rep. Bill Rogers, a Republican, had secured $375,000 of the state’s next budget for a public-private partnership dedicated to improving STEM education.

Zemke said more money is needed to support teachers in STEM fields.

“Educators have the most power of any of us,” Zemke said, “because they have the ability to influence the outcome of our economy.”