Teacher Corps Offers New Recruits Real-Life Lessons in Rural Mississippi

When Kathleen Sullivan graduated from Williams College magna cum laude last June, she wanted to experience something "more real."

So she decided to take off from New England and go as far south as possible. She joined the Teacher Corps, a Mississippi version of the Peace Corps, to teach in one of the nation's most impoverished areas - the Mississippi Delta. She couldn't have found a more real world.

Ms. Sullivan now teaches English at the Yazoo City High School, in Yazoo City, Miss., surrounded by cotton fields, catfish ponds, and crushing poverty.

Sullivan is one of 25 college graduates recruited last year by the Teacher Corps, a state-funded program organized by the University of Mississippi, to ease a critical shortage of qualified teachers in the state. Since its launch in 1989, more than 150 ambitious applicants have competed for about 25 slots every year. Most of the recruits teach in the state's rural public schools, which are desperate for teachers in subjects like math, science, and foreign languages.

Mississippi was ranked the lowest nationally in average pay for teachers, $25,153, and the second lowest in per-pupil expenditures in 1993-1994.

"The program is unique," says Sullivan, who once wanted to join the Peace Corps. "I knew that I liked the philosophy a lot."

Like Americorps, President Clinton's national service program, the Teacher Corps helps students work toward a two-year master of arts degree in secondary education at the University of Mississippi. The teachers take classes on alternate Saturdays. The program provides textbooks and pays tuition, in addition to a $20,000-a-year salary.

But the teachers face numerous challenges working in the state's rural schools.

Teacher Corps teachers not only teach, they also have to deal with social problems that many of the students bring into the classroom, such as poverty, malnutrition, domestic violence, and parental divorce, among others.

Kelly McDonald, a 1995 graduate of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who teaches English at Greenwood High in Greenwood, says she would like to give her students more assignments to teach them more skills, but she can't. She knows many of her teenage students don't have time and energy for that because they work 30 to 40 hours a week outside school to help their families make ends meet.

Overcoming apathy in most of the students is the most difficult thing, Ms. McDonald says.

Chris Carson, a chemistry and physical science teacher at Yazoo High, who graduated last year from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., has had "a lot of difficulty."

For students to be motivated at all, he says, class has to be relevant - "it has to be shown in some way that this material can help them achieve their goals."

To bring new ideas into her classroom, Sullivan toils extra hours at home. She usually spends more than five hours a day grading and making up tests.

Her efforts and teaching style are boosting kids' interest.

"Miss Sullivan gives us comments on our homework, test, anything," says ninth-grader Eric Fowler. "I'm getting more interested in class."

Despite hardships that students and teachers in Yazoo High are struggling with, the school is steadily making progress. Last year, more than 65 percent of its graduates went to college, according to Principal John Wallace, who recalled that the number was less than 40 percent when he first came to the school five years ago.

"We're proud of that," Wallace says, attributing this jump to "the creation of interest" in the school.

Blending into the new environment, however, has been a hurdle for many newcomers. In Greenwood, like many other places in Mississippi, there are still invisible walls between white and black communities.

"The community has segregated itself," McDonald says. "That has been one of the hardest things for me to deal with. My students still see me as a white before seeing me as anything else, I think."

Mr. Wallace, whose school employs seven Teacher Corps teachers, says, "There is a huge adjustment. We've seen lots of communication problems with them. "On the other hand, he adds, "They bring outside knowledge, all the new ideas, bright ideas, and share these things with us," Wallace says. "Kids love them. We love them."

Sarah Kalich, who graduated two years ago from Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., credits Teacher Corps with persuading her to continue teaching.

"I like working with younger kids," she says. She plans on continuing to teach math at Hunter Middle School in Drew next year after her two-year term in Teacher Corps ends.

Sullivan found out about Teacher Corps through the career counseling center at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. She says her experience in the Mississippi Delta is "more real and more valuable than a college education."

"I'm in the process of probably more educating myself than educating my students," Sullivan says.

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