Education: 'a tool for empowerment'

Katherine Kleitsch chose her educational path carefully.

When her school district in Kent changed some zoning laws, removing restrictions on schools based on location, she chose to commute to Kentlake High School (KHS) to take honors and AP classes. Her parents had to buy her a car to get there, but education came first in her family.

With a strong academic record behind her and an eye set on the UW, she applied by the early decision deadline and was accepted a few weeks later. She went on to graduate from the Foster School of Business in 2009 — but very few of her old high-school peers were beside her as she was handed her diploma.

“I looked around and realized that the people from my neighborhood weren’t there, and the ones that were didn’t stay,” Kleitsch said.

She recently looked up statistics on the two schools she chose from — only 50 percent of students from KHS had graduated. Kent-Meridian High School, the neighborhood high school without honors classes, had a 30-percent graduation rate.

In the past few years, students like Kleitsch, with an eye on the issue of educational disparity, have been joining Teach for America (TFA), the government organization that places recent graduates in underserved schools across the nation.

An eye for education

Last year, the UW was the ninth-highest contributor of Teach for America volunteers in the nation.

Kleitsch, now the recruitment manager for Teach for America, said that, during her time at the UW, she noticed the differences of high-school education in Kent had a direct correlation to career success, and that her parents’ access to another car for her to use helped make her a competitive college applicant.

“I think, at some point, we have to reflect that being at a college or university, you have some sort of privilege,” she said. “We all work hard, but we have some kind of connection to privilege or power or access. … As we move up, it’s easy to become blind about the education issues around us.”

After remaining active in educational outreach — helping jump-start the Dream Project on campus from 30 students to more than 100 — an unexpected class presentation about Teach for America compelled her to apply for the program.

“I started really thinking about what I wanted to do,” Kleitsch said. “I was interviewing with different companies and kept asking myself, ‘Can I do this for 50 years?’ I realized that the things important to me were what I had been working on here. I wanted to do something for someone else and learn about myself and how we’re all connected.”

After an extensive application process that she described as “manageable bursts,” Kleitsch chose to head to New Orleans in 2009, a few months after Hurricane Katrina, to teach high-school geometry.

“It was, hands down, the most challenging experience of my life,” Kleitsch said. “Everyone was extremely far behind; I was teaching geometry to kids with minimal pre-algebra skills.

Turning thoughts into actions

Senior Ethiopia Berta, president of the African Students Association (ASA) and a future TFA applicant, said experiences with both sides of that educational disparity compelled her to apply for the program this year.

“I was a Seattle Public Schools student my whole life; I went to some of the greatest schools in the state, and one of the worst that actually got shut down,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t really understand what a good or bad education was, but there’s a huge achievement gap here [in the state].”

Berta said the gap wasn’t based solely on economic disparity, but rather systemic issues in the schools — specifically, a racial divide — and also a lack of encouragement to achieve. 51.5 percent of the Kent School District consists of minority students.

“There was a racial divide in who took the challenging courses in school and who took the remedial ones,” Berta said.

An encouraging high-school counselor helped guide Berta into the classes she needed in order to have a competitive college application, but she said that her experience was uncommon.

“There were a lot of counselors that weren’t encouraging; I was one of two or three minorities in the classroom,” she said. “I figured out over time it’s not that [minority students] don’t want to take challenging classes — it’s because no one is encouraging them. My experience was heartbreaking. A lot of my friends that came from my neighborhood were in these ‘regular classes.’”

After heading to the UW, like Kleitsch, Berta became active in campus organizations like the ASA and high-school outreach, mentoring in the Ubuntu program, which sets up incoming freshmen of color with experienced students as mentors.

Berta said she’s always had her thoughts on ending educational inequality, and, even though her eventual goal is law school, she plans to keep that mindset and get first-hand experience through TFA.

“Right now it’s a systemic thing, and the best way I can compete against it personally is to be a part of Teach for America,” she said.

‘Every kid wants to be great’

Teach for America has had 20,000 volunteers complete the two-year assignment since its inception in 1990, and there are currently more than 9,000 teachers working in underserved schools.

Kleitsch came back to the UW as a recruitment manager, to help spread knowledge about TFA and close the gap between volunteers and the growing demand.

She said acceptance standards for TFA haven’t been lowered but that more people are needed to create a movement in educational reform across the nation, and the UW has an untapped resource of students.

“Coming back to the UW, I feel like there’s so much more potential here, and I feel pride when I come to campus and I see all these people in Dream Project shirts and tabling at Education Without Borders events,” Kleitsch said.

Like Berta, she said she feels education is “a tool for empowerment,” and a transformative element. From her own experience, Kleitsch said if you give kids the chance to see themselves differently and as full of potential, they’ll take off.

“Every single kid wants to be great,” she said. “Every single parent wants that for their child, I believe that in my heart. How badly my kids worked and how badly they wanted to be successful proves that.”

Reach News Editor Nick Visser at features@dailyuw.com.

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