Students gathered for dinner hosted by the Teach for America (TFA) program

CU Denver School of Education and Human Development Dean Rebecca Kantor greeted students gathered for dinner hosted by the Teach for America (TFA) program Jan. 25 at the Lawrence Street Center. The group included current undergraduate and graduate students contemplating career options. The goal was to introduce these students to the possibility of serving a stint with TFA.

“We need your fresh and unconventional ways of looking at education,” Chancellor Jerry Wartgow told the students. He acknowledged that while we have a public education system in the United States that’s intended to improve our lives, we also know there are gaps. “You’re fresh,” he said. “We need you to instill confidence in the lives of our children.”

Wartgow reminded the students about fellow CU Denver student Mahala Greer, recently in the news as an invited guest to Washington, D.C., for President Obama’s State of the Union. Currently a senior, Greer already has signed on with TFA for two years after graduation.

CU President Bruce Benson reinforced the appeal, saying, “we’re always looking for great minds and great leaders. It’s important for you all to help us get our kids ready for college.”

Teach for America Colorado Executive Director Sean VanBerschot has been working with TFA for more than a decade. He talked about education equity within Metro Denver in recounting the story of Manual High School, which Denver Public Schools shut down in order to retool. That happened while, just a few miles away, in the Cherry Creek School District great success was happening.

A panel was facilitated by Shelley Zion, executive director, Continuing Education and Professional Development, School of Education and Human Development.

Participants in the evening’s panel discussion included Colorado State Sen. Mike Johnston, Senate District 33, who joined TFA straight out of college. He described wanting to be part of a “great American movement.” He said he found public education to be what he was seeking and “TFA is a way to make a change.” Now a member of the Colorado Senate Education Committee, Johnston was co-founder and principal of the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts that became the first public high school from which all seniors were admitted to four-year colleges.

Panelist Michelle Koyama, principal of Denver’s Skinner Middle School, herself is a product of DPS. She talked about how her personal experiences with regard to ethnicity have guided her focus on setting expectations for students.

West Denver Prep sixth-grade teacher Dane Stickney was joined at the panelists’ table by his students Noah London and Estrella Damian, now in seventh grade. Together, they shared ideas about the value of respect for students and teachers. “Don’t be discouraged,” Noah said to the prospective teachers, “we do appreciate you.”

Audience members queried the panelists about what it was like when they first stepped into a classroom as a teacher. Panelists challenged the audience to think about teachers they’ve encountered who made a difference in their lives – and to be inspired by those examples.

“Amazing teachers can change the crisis we’re seeing today in education,” Johnston said.

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