WASHINGTON -- Not long ago, during an hour and a half period, the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast Washington, D.C., had four shootings and a stabbing that together claimed eight victims. Among them was a 13-year-old boy killed by stray gunfire.
Trinidad's local elementary school reflected the chaos around it. "Students ran the school," says Scott Cartland, the new principal of the Wheatley Education Campus. "The kids were running down the halls, roaming."
But on the morning I visited Wheatley, Cartland greeted each student at the front door by name, making sure no one lingered. Upstairs in Amber Smith's fifth grade classroom, disruption is confronted immediately, with a note of the infraction put up on the white board. This morning the children sit on the carpet at the front of the room for a "read aloud" of "Bridge to Terabithia" -- a book teaching that even kingdoms of the imagination are not immune from tragedy.
Smith is a Teach for America corps member, meaning that fresh out of college, with five weeks of training, she was thrown into the deep end of the teaching profession in a low-income school. Smith is impossibly young and impossibly committed. She lives in the Trinidad neighborhood, walks to school with her students and attends their dance shows and basketball games. Her two-year Teach for America commitment is up, but she is staying on at Wheatley anyway. "I can't leave until it has changed," she explains.
Principal Cartland is a Teach for America alumnus. Two years ago he was asked by D.C.'s public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to direct the turnaround at Wheatley. Cartland replaced 80 percent of the staff and hired seven Teach for America corps members.
Rhee is also a veteran of Teach for America -- indicating something more than a pattern and something less than a conspiracy. Teach for America has managed to funnel some of the brightest college graduates into some of the country's toughest teaching jobs, creating a human capital pipeline from elite institutions to poor neighborhoods. For many, Teach for America is more than a rite of passage. At the start of their service, about 8 percent of corps members intend to pursue a career in education. About 67 percent eventually do.