Teach For America

Grad joins Teach for America program

Saturday, July 5, 2003
For the Courier-Post

Khalil Murrell never planned on becoming an English teacher.

"I just knew I was going to be a doctor," when he entered college, Murrell said.

Four years later, Murrell, 22, of Camden, graduated from Temple University and is becoming an English teacher in Philadelphia through the Teach for America program.

Murrell, a graduate of Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, received his bachelor's degree in political science this spring, focusing on urban politics.

He heard about Teach For America through a friend.

"I really respected their commitment to educational equity," Murrell said. "That's always been something that resonated in my mind, the importance of education."

Teach for America, a national organization, asks outstanding college graduates to commit to teaching for two years in an inner-city or rural public school. The teachers are paid by the district in which they work.

More than 9,000 graduates have met this challenge since the program's inception in 1990, according to the program's Web site.

Murrell was inspired after hearing Temple professor Sonia Sanchez speak in the fall of 2001. "She was talking about the importance of giving back to communities, especially for minorities," Murrell said. "I knew I wanted to help young people who come from the same background that I do."

Murrell also draws inspiration from his mother. "A goal of my mom's was to show us that you need a college degree to open the doors that weren't open for her," he said. "My mom always instilled in me how important education is."

Murrell is keeping his options open as to his post-teaching plans, exploring everything from law school to master's degrees in economic development or creative writing.

"The philosophy that I try to follow comes from something Golda Meir said: `It's more important to create the type of life you want to live, not the type of job you want to do'," Murrell said. "I want to give back in whatever capacity I can. I believe I have grown up here for a reason - to give back to the community."

Murrell said he feels fortunate to be teaching during Philadelphia's first year of participation with Teach for America.

"During the very strenuous and long application process, you get to choose your top three locations," Murrell said. "I like to think of myself as a Northeast kind of guy, so I picked Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington."

"Placement is determined by a combination of factors," said Tracy-Elizabeth Clay, executive director of Teach for America-Philadelphia.

"Applicant preference, district need and the certification process are the three main factors."

By going to Philadelphia, Murrell will be in familiar surroundings.

"Camden is a microcosm of West or North Philadelphia," he said. "Growing up in an area very similar to Philadelphia has prepared my mind for the experience."

Murrell will not be alone: Teach for America teachers are placed in clusters, with at least two teachers in the program in each school.

The teachers are assigned to the most underperforming schools.

"Our goal is to help the underperforming schools," Clay said. "We're not going to be doing that if they put us in Chestnut Hill or Mount Airy."

Teach for America entered the Philadelphia School District after the district's chief executive officer, Paul Vallas, started in 2002. Vallas had worked with the program while superintendent of the Chicago School District.

The application process, which included some of the best and brightest college graduates in the nation, included two essays, a 5-minute teaching sample and an individual interview with the program's organizers.

"They're trying to get a sense of your leadership abilities," Murrell said. "They want a sense of how you handle yourself as a leader without the resources that are available in many of the more affluent schools."

Murrell, who begins summer training for Teach for America in Los Angeles this month, hopes to intertwine his knowledge with an important life lesson.

"What has helped me most is that I have the power of choice; that, regardless of circumstances, I am the captain of my life," Murrell said. "That speaks to the greatness of this country and the essence of humanity. A lot of kids in the inner city haven't been taught that."

Murrell understands education's impact on a child's life.

"I've come into contact with many great teachers. I had classes where I couldn't even take the books home, and teachers had to photocopy the pages," he said. "The dedication that many of my teachers have shown makes them great teachers."

Murrell is one of more than 1,800 graduates selected from an applicant pool of more than 16,000 applications to join Teach for America this year. More than 63 percent of Teach for America participants remain in education after their stint in the program ends, Clay said.

 Reach Adam Lewis at (856) 486-2401 or cpmetro@courierpostonline.com


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