K-12 Education

Why I Believe in Teach For America

February 7, 2020  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the keynote address at the 2020 Honor Roll Gala hosted by Teach For America’s Rio Grande Valley Region on February 7, 2020 in McAllen, Texas. Follow Dan Porterfield on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

I want to start by saying thank you to all who have prepared and served our food, played our music, and organized this spectacular evening.

And thank you to two daughters of the Rio Grande Valley: our fearless Executive Director, Ana Gonzalez, and that force of nature with the brains, heart, and spine to drive change for children—our National CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard.

Thank you to the TFA Rio Grande Valley Board, and also to tonight’s honorees: South Texas College, Luzelma Canales and JoAnn Gama.

I serve on TFA’s national Board, which means I’m part of a group of leaders in business, philanthropy, and, in my case, education, who advocate for this remarkable organization.

Which brings me to my first of three themes tonight: Why I believe in Teach For America.

I got behind TFA back in 2002 when I was teaching at Georgetown University. One of my star students named Joanna Belcher came up and said, “I want to be a part of Teach For America—will you recommend me?” That was like recommending LeBron James to play basketball or Ana Gonzalez to run for President— not too hard!

Then in 2003 two students came to me—Katie Boogaard and Lisa Shea. And in 2004 it grew to five including Steve de Man, who was sent here, to the Valley, and taught middle school in Roma.

It was this handful of college students with their leadership and work ethic and thirst to level the playing field who recruited me into TFA, almost 17 years ago. Now we know that some 60,000 young people have taken this bold path.

Looking back, my story was a case of the professor learning from the students. When I visited Katie in her New York classroom or called Steve down here on the weekends, I would feel inspired by what they were doing—and envious!

Whether it was creating effective lesson plans or learning about the community or partnering with their students’ parents…

Whether it was banging their heads against the blackboard after school because they knew they weren’t teaching well enough yet; or staring up at the ceiling at night lifted high by the hope and hard work in the trusting faces peering at them each day from within the sacred space of the classroom.

I would listen to my Georgetown mentees learning lessons from their TFA students, and I would feel swept up in a desire to help those same students myself, like the children in Roma, the apples of their parents’ eyes, with their futures stretching before them, but obstacles too, and with so much to contribute to this world if we who are older could just give them an education as empowering as the ones that we’d received, when we were young, from teachers who saw that spark in our eyes and showed that they believed in what we could become—which is pretty much the way a good society reproduces itself.

Because of Teach For America, I began to understand that, as a middle-aged college professor in Washington, DC, I was only one degree of separation from those bright children in New Orleans and New Mexico, in the Delta and the Valley, because if I could support my Georgetown students, who were serious and sincere, then I would be able to make a difference too, almost as if there were no degrees of separation—zero—on what is the greatest moral imperative of this day and every day, if you read the Constitution or Scripture—which is to give children a chance.

And it was for that reason that I became a champion of Teach For America—not because it or any program is perfect—nothing is—but because this program would put young adults both into classrooms where they could make a fast difference and on to leadership trajectories where they could make sustained impacts.

And since that time, I’ve mentored about 200 of my Georgetown and Franklin & Marshall College students to join Teach For America—including some amazing people who have come to work in this Valley of Hope, like Sarah Audelo and Alejandro Delgado and Perla Silva and Brenda Garcia and many more.

We join organizations whose values call us to be our best selves, and TFA does that.

I believe in Teach For America because it knows that every child can learn and grow their gifts.

I believe in Teach for America because it is committed to the idea that every child has a legal right, a civil right, and a human right to a high-quality education.

I believe in Teach For America because it has a can-do faith in teachers, and schools—and because it’s fanatical about getting results.

I believe in Teach For America because it calls itself to address not just the consequences of educational injustice but its causes, too…

And because so many of its alums have wrapped their brains around the ideal of educational equity and now will never ever let go.

I believe in Teach For America because it reminds us that anyone can make a difference and all of us should try…

And because TFA works in partnership with communities—in service—and not as if from above, and is making a long commitment in region after region.

Which brings me to my second theme: I am so honored to be here, in the Rio Grande Valley, because this community is an epicenter of emerging excellence in education.

When I was working at Georgetown University, I first learned this lesson about RGV at the moral level. Here’s how.

In 2005, that Corps Member I mentioned before, Steve de Man, rallied the Roma community for months to raise money to send his whole middle school history class to Washington, DC to learn about the establishment of our democratic system in the capital of our country. It was incredible how much Roma pitched in together through bake sales, raffles, business donations, and family contributions so that these children could get on a bus for 28 hours and travel 1,800 miles to learn about democracy.

That is how much the children and families of Roma, Texas believe in education. Steve and his class did it again the next year—and then Sarah Audelo did it with her class and Alejandro Delgado did it with his.

I met with the students on each of those trips. Those young people were so proud.

No one believes in education like the people of the Rio Grande Valley and the Latino communities of the United States. Thank you.

Somehow, I think this is related to the beauty of borderlands, immigration, and Dreamers. We are here together in the borderlands. Borderlands are not boundaries; they are places of possibility. Borderlands are home to fused cultures, creativity, dialogue, discovery, insight and breakthrough. Thank you.

All those student trips happened between 2005 and 2009. I saw hope in action first hand—and then yesterday, when I read a report on the state of education in the Rio Grande Valley, I saw hope in achievement.

The report compared student learning results in 2011-12 to 2017-18—and the upward trajectory was unmistakable.

  • 3rd grade reading proficiency up nine percent
  • 8th grade math up 20 percent
  • Four-year graduation rate up five percent
  • FAFSA completion up 12 percent
  • AP/dual credit completion up 12 percent
  • Higher education enrollment up four percent

All of these trends bode well for this region and our students and our families. And I’m grateful to Teach For America for doing its part. Nearly 1,700 corps members have worked in the Rio Grande Valley, and almost 200 have decided to continue to work and live here after their service. TFA alums, including our honoree JoAnn Gama, co-founded IDEA Public Schools with my fellow Georgetown Hoya, Tom Torkelson.

TFA alumni continue to teach in this region with distinction. One example is Jose Beserra, who grew up here, had Corps Members and alumni as teachers, and then became a Corps Members himself. It’s no surprise that when TFA launched its first national teaching award, three of the winners in the first two years were right here in the Valley. The success continues and you will soon hear from Melina Recio, a TFA alumna who is the McAllen Independent School District teacher of the year.

So, tonight, we celebrate the educational successes of the Rio Grande Valley, which brings me to my last point: We need to rally everyone and keep our pedal to the metal so that we can grow the movement for educational equity throughout the Rio Grande Valley—because our future depends upon it.

What future, you might ask?

The future of our cities and towns here. The future of the Valley. The future of Texas. The future of America, and the future of that beautiful land, Mexico, with whom we share history and culture and families and life.

You see, that’s because children are our future.

And the future of this Valley is a 10-year-old girl here in McAllen who loves math and a science—and some day she might go into financial management.

The future of this Valley is a 12-year-old boy in Laredo who just came north last year and is learning English like a plant drinking up summer rain—and some day he might go into education.

And the future of this Valley are 14-year-old twins in Pharr who’ve got their eyes trained on UT and are taking AP computer science as sophomores—and some day they might create a business here.

Each of these young people is part of the future of our country. In a shape-shifting, tech-fueled economy where every job will change and where lifetime learning is power, we need to keep up the momentum of these last eight years and make sure that all young people in this Valley get an education that will draw out the greatness within them.

That may sound like a challenge, but really it’s an opportunity. An opportunity, for all of us who are older, to help our children create the future they dream of, for their good and our good. America is woven of many strands—with education, we are many, and we are one. Thank you for listening and thank you Teach For America.