Whenever Nicole Cleveringa ’08 feels overwhelmed, she thinks of the starfish story.
In it, a man walks along the beach, tossing starfish back into the ocean. When a doubter tells the man that there are too many dying starfish on too many beaches for him to make a difference, the man tosses another starfish back into the water and replies, “I just made a difference to that one.”
For Cleveringa, the story is a perfect analogy for her time with Teach for America.
This is Cleveringa’s second and final year with Teach for America, a program that seeks to reduce inequality in the public education system by recruiting exceptional college graduates to teach in rural and urban schools.
This year, she is teaching sixth, seventh and eighth grade language arts at C. A. Franklin Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo. Last year, she taught second grade at the school.
Located in an impoverished area of Kansas City, nearly 90 percent of Franklin’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Last year, only 7.4 percent of students tested at a proficient level for communication arts. Only 8.7 percent tested proficient for math. At the beginning of March the district’s school board voted to close Franklin, and 25 other Kansas City schools, at the end of the academic year.
Despite these overwhelming challenges, Cleveringa feels optimistic about the progress she is making with her students both academically and behaviorally. She runs her classroom with a stern voice and a simple philosophy: reward good behavior and keep expectations high.
It’s important, she’s learned, to be firm and let them know that she is in charge. It’s equally as important to earn their trust.
“Once you prove to them that you are here to help them learn and grow, they listen,” she said.
An English/communication studies double major at Simpson, Cleveringa is teaching her passion this year, and she tries to convey her interest to her students by keeping them engaged in their learning. For example, after reading A Christmas Carol with her seventh grade students, Cleveringa found an organization to donate tickets to the movie. Her students then compared the two versions with projects during class.
That type of creative teaching is exactly what makes Cleveringa a “jewel,” said Airick Leonard West, who is an at-large board member for the Kansas City, Missouri School District.
Though he is still looking for data to substantiate his belief, West feels the Teach for America program is making a difference in the district. He said he expects results not only in the academic growth of the students but also improvements in the culture of learning throughout the school district.
“The other area where I see TFA being transformative is in spearheading a movement from the current teaching culture that says, ‘I’ll teach the students that want to learn’ to a culture of learning that says, ‘I am responsible for the learning of every scholar,’ ” he said.
Cleveringa feels like she has a handle on teaching now, but she is in a completely different place from last year. A spring break mission trip to Mississippi during her junior year at Simpson inspired her to give back to the community, and after graduation, she entered Teach for America with bright-eyed optimism.
Though she felt academically prepared to handle the classroom, she said she was not at all emotionally prepared for the challenges that she would face: the poverty, the lack of her resources at her school, the number of her students for whom violence was a fact of life.
“I came out of Simpson and wanted to change the world,” she said. “I felt like last fall, I got pushed down. I guess I’m harder now.”
Last year, after a parent entered her second-grade class and hit her child in front of the rest of Cleveringa’s students, she left for a week. The moment still haunts her, but in the end, she decided she had to return for her students.
The students are what keep her going, she says, and now when she is feeling frustrated, she remembers her own starfish. Like her former student Miya, who didn’t know how to read when she entered the second grade but learned by the end of the school year. She knows, at least, she made a difference to her.
“I taught a little girl how to read,” she said. “No one can take that away from me.”