Teach for America leaving its mark in Edgard school

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 11, 2011

By David Vitrano


EDGARD – Over the past several years, Teach for America instructors have had a significant impact on the educational system in St. John the Baptist Parish, and perhaps nowhere more so than at West St. John High School, which bid farewell to its two TFA teachers, James Kline and Kate Esposito, this year.

Kline and Esposito, who hail from New Jersey and Connecticut, respectively, both came to St. John Parish three years ago. And each left a lasting impression on the academic programs there.

Interestingly, both Esposito and Kline came to the field of education in a somewhat roundabout fashion.

As an undergraduate, Esposito majored in psychology, but a TFA recruiter changed the direction of her future endeavors.

“I rethought my original decision,” she said.

Kline, meanwhile, was a political science major, but the leap to becoming a TFA instructor was a little less of a stretch for him.

“I was pretty active in public policy and juvenile issues,” he said.

Through his studies he saw firsthand the achievement gap between students from low-income areas and those from upper- and middle-class areas. He said from that point on he dedicated his life to correcting this situation.

“(TFA) has provided incredible resources for me to do that,” Kline said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that stronger teachers are the way to fix this problem.”

One of Kline’s most indelible marks left at West St. John is the project-based learning method of learning and assessment.

It is a comprehensive approach that forces students to take their entire body of knowledge and apply it to a community-based project.

The method not only tests a student’s knowledge of the subject matter but also makes use of their creativity and problem-solving abilities in a practical manner.

Kline said he has seen the growth of project-based learning in his three years at the school.

“The projects are a little bit more focused and strong,” he said. “The stronger I get as a teacher, the more focused my students get.”

West St. John High Principal Erica Merrick also recognizes the benefits of project-based learning at her school. She said even after the departure of Kline, the method will continue to expand. One way she plans to do this is by spending more time in the classrooms next year.

“Next year I’m losing that cheerleader for PBL,” she said.

It is a role she will have to fill herself until her other teachers embrace the method with as much enthusiasm as Kline.

“Everybody’s strengths can be brought out,” said Merrick.

While Esposito admitted she just got her feet wet with project-based learning this year, her impact on the school’s biology department has been no less marked.

“Ms. E has totally transformed biology,” said Merrick. “She has brought biology to life.”

Although Kline’s and Esposito’s contributions to West St. John have been substantial, both have also taken away much from their time at the school.

“You don’t really know what it’s like seeing things through the eyes of a teacher,” said Esposito. “Just seeing the problem has made me that much more motivated.”

Kline added, “Nothing worthwhile is easy. If I don’t have a great principal and a great community, it won’t work.”

Merrick admitted West St. John’s success with Teach for America can be attributed to luck as much as anything else.

“It’s not like if you’re not TFA, you’re not a good teacher,” she said, noting some schools have not had the success hers has. “I’ve had really good experiences.”

She added, “I do believe that my teachers can and will do the job, but there will be a big void with them gone.”

Although she will not have the benefit of seasoned Teach for America instructors at her school next year, Merrick believes some of that void can be filled by copying some of the organization’s methods.

“I’m not intimidated by someone with a bright idea,” she said. “It all comes back to the training. I think more districts should follow their training methods.”

According to St. John Parish Superintendent Courtney Millet, budget constraints have prevented the district from taking advantage of the Teach for America program to the extent she would like to.

“We still have to be very conservative,” she said.

There are currently six TFA instructors employed with the district for the next school year with the possibility of adding more, especially in the high-need areas of math, science and special education.

Said Director of Human Resources Leigh Ann Beard, “They have strong content knowledge, and that’s why we look to TFA.”

As for the future of the two departed teachers, Kline is heading to New Orleans East, where he will be the founding senior world history teacher at the Charter Science and Math Academy, and Esposito is exploring options in New Orleans, Chicago and New York.

Undoubtedly, their time spent at a small school in Edgard will remain with them throughout their careers.

“(I’ll miss) the kids, it being such a small school, knowing every student, getting to know my students so well. I think it is taken for granted,” she said.

Added Kline, “They’ve become my family. Being embraced by the community has been one of the best things.”