Montressor Upshaw is one of the lucky ones. A graduate of an inner-city high school in Gary, Ind., he's now a 21-year-old college senior at Emory University in Atlanta. But he knows what it's like to be in a school where violence is common, resources are few and teachers are struggling to make their students competitive with those from more affluent suburban schools.
So when the chance came to do something to help students in some of the poorest schools in Atlanta, he jumped at it.
He signed up for Teach For America, a national group that places people who want to teach in disadvantaged schools that desperately need them. The 10-year-old organization is opening an office in Atlanta this fall.
By finding some of the brightest students and professionals who have a desire to teach -- but not necessarily a background or education in teaching -- and providing five weeks of intensive training and mentoring, the group helps to counteract a critical teacher shortage by acting like a sort of Peace Corps for public schools.
Although enrollment in teacher education programs is up, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 2.2 million new teachers will be needed in the next decade. A third of today's teachers are expected to retire in the next 10 years.
"Teach For America is a powerful program," said Billy Kearney, executive director of Teach For America's new division in Atlanta, who described participants as high-achieving college graduates committed to teaching in low-income communities. "We exist to ensure children in low-income school districts have the same commitment to educational excellence as students in more affluent school districts" he said, a stance that given Teach For America graduates a welcome in the Atlanta public school system.
LaTasha Jones, a 28-year-old senior who is majoring in English and religious studies at Spelman College, has also answered the call to teach in Atlanta's public schools. A volunteer in several school-based outreach programs, her desire to teach has only been strengthened after what she has seen in some of the poorest schools in Atlanta.
A field experience class at Spelman College placed her in Kennedy Middle School, a disadvantaged school in Atlanta's West End. She's also volunteered at North Atlanta High School in Atlanta's more prosperous North End.
The disparities were startling, she said, whether it was the landscaping, the noise level or the availability of microscopes for science students.
The chasm between schools makes it even more vital for a program like Teach For America to use its unconventional methods of placing community members in the nation's underdog schools, she said.
"I know that this is a calling that God has put in my life," said Jones, who, like Upshaw, will participate in the Teach For America program in Atlanta this fall. "So many people would like to just close their eyes to what is going on in our urban areas. I can't do that."
The strengths of Teach For America are indisputable. (The program) "has mobilized our most able college students to enter teaching and in this sense made the profession a noble continuation of service activities," said Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. "It has also brought teachers to underserved classrooms in rural and urban areas."
But Levine and other education professionals aren't totally convinced that the program's benefits outweigh its major drawback: the participants' lack of training and experience.
"The minuses are that the students are not prepared to teach," Levine said. "Candidates receive only a short training session when they need at least a postcollege year to learn pedagogy, curriculum design, evaluation, classroom management and how children develop and their varied learning styles."
In addition, they need a supervised internship before being turned loose on their own to take on a classroom, he said.
"The children who are most likely to get a (Teach For America) teacher are the most disadvantaged in the country. They deserve and need the best-prepared teachers this country offers," Levine said.
Despite the criticism, Teach For America has had its converts. In a 1999 report from school principals who have supervised Teach For America graduates, more than three out of four rated corps members as better than other beginning teachers in their school. And nearly two-thirds rated them higher than they did the school's overall teaching staff.
For soon-to-be teachers like Upshaw, who's majoring in psychology, the program's rewards to children outweigh any criticisms, although he confesses to some doubts about how well prepared he'll be when he enters his first classroom as a teacher.
"I don't know what to expect … and I'm slightly nervous and I have to do alot of research on my own on how to actually reach the students," he said.
But Upshaw is also undeterred.
"I feel a commitment to do something," he said. "I have had so many opportunities and it's important for me to share that with someone else."
Besides, he added, "Nothing can prepare you to go in the classroom and teach in an urban setting."