Young adults work to address education achievement gap on
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Michelle Verrochi was on the path to medical school
when she graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in
That was three years ago.
Now Verrochi, originally from New Hampshire, is finishing her
third year teaching at Todd County High School on the Rosebud
TCHS has 555-students.
rate is 51%.
49% of county residents live below
The nearest Walmart is
“I felt like my entire path was me going to medical school. I
was really focused on that. So my senior year of college I
started to think, do I reall want to do this?” she said.
Lara Heiberger had a similar epiphany last year, when she was a
senior math major at the South Dakota School of Mines &
Technology in Rapid City.
“I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk. I wasn’t ready to go
to grad school,” the 23-year-old said. “I wanted to do
something where I felt like I wasn’t just taking – where I
could have immediate gratification that I could do something
Heiberger and Verrochi
found a solution in
Teach for America. TOA recruits and selects college grads
and young professionals to teach for two years at
low-income schools. More than 5,100 TOA teachers serve
nationwide, with 57 working in schools near the Pine Ridge and
South Dakota has allocated $250,000
from tits education budget to expand
the program. With private matching funds, the state's TOA
teachers will increase to 100
and the program will expand to the
Cheyenne River, Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations.
In South Dakota, TOA teachers earn
$27,000 - $31,000
Jim Curran is executive director of Teach for America in South Dakota.
He is committed to closing the achievement gap between
low-income schools and their better-off peers:
Rapid City schools have an
Todd County has a
Shannon County on the Pine Ridge reservation has a
“It’s easy to look at these numbers and get down, but that’s
another thing our students struggle with — they struggle with hopelessness,” Curran said. “We need hope, and we need
Verrochi is cheerfully working to combat the poor graduation
rate. In her classroom on Tuesday, five students leaned forward
intently as they rolled blue clay into long, snakelike small
intestines to add to the digestive systems of model skeletons
on the table in front of them.
“Make sure you attach your large intestine to your small
intestine!” Verrochi, 25, reminded the “Human Body Systems”
students as she circled the room. “Don’t leave it hanging.”
Tanner Colombe, 16, is a student in Verrochi’s Human Body
Systems class. He has had half a dozen Teach for America
teachers in his high school career.
“TFAs are usually more gung ho,” he said. “They relate to you
because they’re a bit younger, so it’s easier to get along with
them. And they have pretty interesting classes, because they’re
The Human Body Systems class is an advanced elective and most of
the students in Tuesday’s class were juniors. Through a
national program the school just started offering, students who
score well on an end-of-semester assessment earn up to 3
credits they can transfer to participating colleges.
The first year in Mission was tough, Verrochi admitted. The
brown-eyed, curly-haired teacher had just graduated and was
juggling new responsibilities and a foreign environment. But
watching her students use knowledge from her classes to teach
others kept her coming back. Many of them want to work on the
reservation as doctors, she said.
“It was a ton of work, but to see how it impacts the kids was
the biggest driving force for me,” she said. “I think that
grows every year.”
Verrochi is now considering studying public health, but will
stick around at Todd County High School for at least one more
Some have criticized Teach for America as taking jobs from local
teachers, but Peg Diekhoff, assistant principal at Todd County
High School, said that is not the case. The school hires every
applicant it can from Sinte Gleska University, the tribal
college in Mission, and there still are open jobs and high
turnover rates in Todd County schools.
“One of the issues we have is just trying to fill all of our job
openings,” she said. “Teach for America really gave us a viable
Wizipan Garriott grew up on the Rosebud reservation.
with Teach for America teachers when he worked with the assistant secretary of
Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.
“These are people who are smart enough to go into other fields
and to do other things," Garriot said. " … They don’t have to come to the
second-poorest county in the United States or a poor inner-city
area and work for very little money in a challenging work
environment. They do it because they’re committed.”
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