Sara Ordaz wants to make a difference. That's why she chose UCLA. And that's why she's a teacher.
The recent graduate is now thousands of miles away from campus, but she still holds the values she learned here close to her heart. These values are what motivate her in the classroom each day as she works to instill a sense of confidence and a value for education ["a respect for education"] in her kindergarten students on Detroit's east side.
"I have never worked so hard in my life," said Ordaz, who majored in political science and minored in education and public affairs before graduating last June.
This year, she and 74 other UCLA graduates joined Teach for America, an organization that works in partnership with communities across the nation to expand educational opportunities for children facing the challenges of poverty. In a report released by Teach for America this fall, UCLA ranked third in the nation in the number of recent graduates who became corps members. More than 425 UCLA alumni have participated in the Teach for America program since the national nonprofit was founded in 1990.
Just a couple of months into her two-year placement, Ordaz is learning firsthand some of the serious issues facing education in America, including underfunding, minimal resources and overcrowding. Despite the challenges, she works with a roomful of children who are eager to excel, and she is able to support their love of learning.
"My students and their families count on me to be the best teacher I can be," she said.
Ordaz said she is not surprised by UCLA's high ranking in the Teach for America report, in light of the university's strong commitment to public service.
"This commitment was one of the reasons I decided to go to UCLA in the first place," said Ordaz, who had previously worked as an intern with an education-policy organization and had been involved with education service projects during her undergraduate years. "As a student, I was surrounded with opportunities to do something more and figure out exactly what type of service would make me happy and lead to potential career opportunities."
UCLA embodies the idea that quality education in America is critical to all students — no matter their zip code, race, home life or socioeconomic background — and the campus has a host of service programs aimed at achieving such equity. UCLA's Teacher Education Program (TEP), for example, trains educators to teach in neighborhoods in Los Angeles that are facing poverty and related issues.
TEP was established as part of Center X at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in response to the racial and social issues that were prominent parts of the public discourse. The unique graduate-level teaching program is a training and professional-development unit rooted in social justice, human rights and equity among all people regardless of race, ethnicity or economics.
Students in the program range from aspiring teachers who have not yet worked in the classroom to veteran educators, said Annamarie Francois, the program's director, who stresses that kids deserve teachers who understand their circumstances and who are able to inspire and motivate them in the classroom and help them meet their full potential.
"If you look at achievement rates across L.A. and across the nation, we're not doing a great job of educating our kids," Francois said. "Something in the pipeline isn't working, and so we focus our recruitment on folks who are looking more critically at the teaching profession, the curriculum we teach and how we teach it, and the conditions in which K–12 students are learning ... This generation is committed to serve. There's something about L.A. that nurtures this service-oriented way of thinking and being, and we offer that connection through TEP."
Teacher education at UCLA aims to prepare teachers with the content knowledge, pedagogical skills and disposition to meet the needs of the culturally, linguistically and racially diverse school-age population of Los Angeles, said Francois.
"We recognize the huge achievement gap based on income status, racial diversity and language diversity," she said. "And as a public institution, we believe very strongly in serving children who traditionally would not receive a high-quality education, and so that brings us to the most low-performing schools."
Challenges facing students in these schools include high teacher-turnover rates, which result in a lack of consistency and stability in the classroom; unstable caregivers; and chronic hunger and poverty.
The retention rate for TEP graduates after five years of service is 80 percent — far greater than the 50 percent average for all teachers in Los Angeles.
"Our graduates are not only staying in the profession, they're staying and serving kids who need them the most in LA. We're really, really proud of that," Francois said. "Our graduates understand that these children might be hungry when they come to school. They see them as individual kids with individual needs that are shaped by their cultural perspective but also by the social issues that affect their lives in low-income communities. If L.A. is to grow and develop as a city and every citizen is to thrive, then we've got to work with those who are struggling the most."
To date, several thousand teachers have graduated from the UCLA program.
Among them are recent graduates Jennifer Zapata and Alison Munzer. Both started their teaching careers with Teach for America and later sought additional training and experience at UCLA's TEP.
Zapata grew up in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, the only child of parents from El Salvador. From an early age, she noticed that her classmates were not encouraged or expected to go to college, and there was a local gang "that had a big presence."
"That motivated me a lot," she said of her choice to teach in underserved schools. "A lot of these kids are like me when I was a kid."
Zapata, who graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2009 and UCLA's TEP in June 2012, is now a first-grade teacher at a charter school in Los Angeles' Glassell Park area. She says that she was attracted to the UCLA graduate-level program because of its focus on social justice and education and the value it places on students as individuals.
"In general, the educational system is very data-driven, with tests and benchmarks," she said. "When I came to UCLA, it was a breath of fresh air to see and hear a professor say that it's not all about that, that there is so much more to your students. You should instill confidence in them that doesn't just come from numbers, and make them feel validated. That's been a huge part of my first grade here and what I've been trying to teach my students. There are many ways that your intelligence is shown and your growth is shown."
Alison Munzer's interest in the importance of education in urban areas was fueled by her undergraduate thesis project at Amherst College, which explored the link between access to quality education and incarceration rates.
"Through my research, I found that a lot of people who haven't had access to excellent education find themselves in prison," said Munzer, who completed the UCLA program in 2011 and is a first-grade teacher at a charter school in the Florence and Normandie area of South Los Angeles. "I got lucky. I had a pretty great experience with education, and I probably stayed out of trouble for those reasons. To me, it is all about race and socioeconomics, and there's a pretty big injustice going on systematically in this country."
Munzer said that in order for change to be realized, teachers must raise the bar by not stopping at teaching the basics. In addition to teaching the standard subjects like reading, writing and math, they must work to transform the lives of students by creating critical thinkers, by integrating an understanding of social justice, and by working to empower communities.
"It's about creating real change that's going to exist well beyond the year you have those students in your classroom," she said.
Munzer is already working to make a difference by incorporating culturally relevant literature into her classroom and challenging her students to analyze it in ways that explore the messaging and social hierarchies. From there, she gets them thinking about how similar themes might be affecting their own families and friends.
She also is expanding horizons by giving her students an opportunity to advance their knowledge and improve their quality of life outside of the classroom. Last year, she took them on a field trip to a nearby branch of the Los Angeles Public Library to apply for library cards and taught them about websites like Donorschoose which can be used to raise funds to improve their school playground.
What are her hopes for her students?
"I hope that they leave my classroom and this school loving to learn," she said. "With that desire and that love, you can do anything, because you'll want to keep growing as a person. I also hope that they become critical citizens and not accept everything at face value and not accept that things can't be changed. There are reasons that things are the way they are right now, but with people who are critical but also hopeful, things can change, and our society can be improved."