Beating the Odds

GW alumna wins Teach for America award.

June 29, 2010

By Jennifer Price

Julia King saw the achievement gap firsthand while serving as a Teach for America corps member in Gary, Ind.

Almost 90 percent of students at West Gary Lighthouse Charter School come from low-income families. Ninety-eight percent are African American. And only 23 percent of her third-grade class passed the statewide standardized test the year before she took over the classroom.

"I just had to accept the students' starting point but continue to maintain really high expectations," says Ms. King, who began teaching third grade at West Gary Lighthouse Charter School after graduating from GW in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in international affairs and French language and literature. "It's been very trying and challenging, but ultimately it has been incredibly rewarding."

Despite the odds, Ms. King refused to give up. And two years later, the hard work paid off.

After staying with the same class for their fourth-grade year, the students had improved immensely -- 88 percent passed the statewide math test and 84 percent passed in reading.

"It's amazing to see such a dramatic change in two short years," says Ms. King, whose success in the classroom got her honored by Teach for America -- the national nonprofit that recruits top college graduates and others to teach in urban and rural schools for two years to help close the achievement gap.

Earlier this summer, Ms. King received the Sue Lehmann Award for Excellence in Teaching, an annual award that honors second-year corps members who embody Teach for America's core values. The award was established in honor of the leadership and support of longtime national board member Sue Lehmann. Nominations are submitted by corps members and program directors across the country, and those nominations are evaluated by selection committees. Four teachers received the award this year, and Ms. King won in the elementary education category.

Standing out as a leader is something that wasn't new to Ms. King.

While at GW, Ms. King became the president of GW's Alpha Phi chapter

"Being a sorority chapter president is one of the most challenging student leadership positions on campus," says Dean Harwood, director of Greek Life. "As president of Alpha Phi, Julia had to manage and lead over 100 young women in a variety of complex situations. This experience is a great foundation for learning how to manage the complexities of a classroom. While a sorority full of college women is very different than a classroom full of third-graders, there are many similarities in the skills needed to be successful."

After reading the book "Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools" by Jonathan Kozol, which compares inner-city school systems to those in affluent suburbs, Ms. King saw education as a social justice issue and wanted to try and change that.

"GW does a really good job of instilling that value of fighting for what you believe in," says Ms. King, who also minored in Spanish at GW.

Every morning, Ms. King greeted her class in English, Spanish and French and led a discussion around current events. Ms. King would listen to National Public Radio as she drove to the school in the morning and would then show her students how the day's news related to their lives.

"I think GW can be really credited for this. There's no denying that when you go to GW, you're a part of something that's much bigger than yourself. You're living in the nation's capital, and a lot of your professors work for the government or big organizations," she says. "I think that's very empowering, and I find it personally very motivating. That's something I wanted to bring back to my students."

Teach for America is one of the top employers for GW students every year.

Each classroom at West Gary Lighthouse Charter School was named after a college or university so it's no surprise that Ms. King's classroom was named GW and decorated in blue and yellow. GW donated paraphernalia, such as t-shirts, stickers, pencils and flags, and Ms. King used the merchandise as prizes when students read 15 books or received a good grade on a quiz.

"I wouldn't be surprised if one of them goes to GW in 2022," says Ms. King, who also received a master’s in teaching from Dominican University in River Forest, Ill.

Ms. King centered her classroom culture on civic engagement.

During the 2008 election, her class registered 45 people to vote. And when she learned that the city of Gary was planning to close four of its six post offices because of budget cuts, she oversaw a student letter-writing campaign to the local congressman.

"It showed them that they really do have a voice," she says. "I wanted my students to see themselves as integral parts of their community and to feel obligated and able to positively influence each other and their world."

Ms. King also worked to involve parents as much as possible in their children's education. She called and texted parents throughout the school day with updates about their children. And each week, she sent home student work with Post-it notes, urging parents to make comments and send them back to the classroom where Ms. King displayed the encouraging words.

Because Teach for America is only a two-year commitment, Ms. King had to say goodbye to her students last month and prepare to return to the District to teach fifth grade at DC Prep, a public charter school in Northeast D.C. But she says she can't wait to see what all her students accomplish and hopes her successful experience can set an example for others.

"What I did as a teacher and what my students achieved can be duplicated elsewhere," she says. "Change is possible."

Student Life