It’s hard to turn down Teach for America. If you try — as one of my friends recently did when she was given an assignment for which she felt unqualified and unprepared — the comeback is simple and effective: But don’t you want to help the kids? Tough to argue with that, particularly when you’ve just spent hours in interviews explaining you do. But although TFA has cornered the market on compassionate Yalies interested in eliminating educational inequality, it isn’t the only game in town. Contrary to the claims of my friend’s interviewer, there are other effective ways of reaching disadvantaged students, and in a realm of secondary education often ignored by outreach and teaching-inclined Yalies: prep schools.
At first glance, teaching at a top-tier private secondary school seems antithetical to the mission of improving educational access to underprivileged students. After all, prep schools like Andover and Exeter once served as feeder programs for their Ivy League counterparts, Yale and Harvard, which at the time were as homogenous as they come: all-white, all-male and all-upper class. Those manicured lawns were a far cry from the rural and inner city public schools that attract TFA candidates today.
But times change, and the myth that wealthy prep schools still cater to the same crowd they did in 1950 is well past its prime. More than ever, these schools are proving our most potent weapon in the war against educational inequality, and have the resources to provide teaching of matchless quality to low-income students from backgrounds comparable to those targeted by TFA.
Consider this: in 2008, Andover’s endowment stood at roughly $790 million, enough to enable the same type of need-blind admissions policy practiced at Yale. In other words, Andover will support 100 percent of any family’s demonstrated financial need, and does not take a student’s ability to pay tuition into account during the admissions process. This is an extraordinary commitment for a high school to make, and one that is utilized by 45 percent of the student body.
It’s not alone. Other schools such as Groton, St. Paul’s and Lawrenceville have similarly generous financial aid. Exeter’s endowment reached $1 billion in 2007 (that’s $1 million per student), spurring a financial aid initiative that now provides full tuition for any accepted student whose family makes under $75,000 per year and partial tuition for those making under $200,000. That covers about 95 percent of the country. Sound familiar? Yale’s financial aid package tops out at the same ceiling. Choate Rosemary Hall, located 20 minutes from New Haven, awards an average scholarship of $35,600 a year to 30 percent of its boarders — $200 more than the average financial aid package at Yale, to which it has sent 34 students since 2006.
For inner-city students — a demographic TFA excels in supporting — who are uncomfortable leaving for boarding school, there are independent day schools with comparable resources in most major cities. Horace Mann, in New York City, allocates $7.5 million to its need-blind program; Los Angeles’ Harvard-Westlake sets aside $6.7 million and provides an average of $20,000 a year to 20 percent of its student body.
Most importantly, they get the word out. Like universities, top-tier prep schools deploy a team of admissions officers to scour the country for brilliant, hard-working students from disadvantaged backgrounds and make their opportunities known. The result is unprecedented access to an elite education, and student bodies that rival Yale’s in socioeconomic diversity. As a teacher at a prep school, you’re just as likely to share the classroom with students who will be first-generation college students as you are those who will be fourth-generation Ivy Leaguers.
So by all means, if you aspire to teach, apply to Teach for America — but don’t overlook the many private secondary schools with the resources and commitment to educate beyond the suburbs. You might not feel like you’re roughing it to quite the same extent, but make no mistake: you’ll have an immense impact on the lives of talented, underprivileged students who have just been given a very new, very exciting future. They’re there, and the moral imperative of teaching them championed by TFA is just as applicable.
Riley Scripps Ford is a senior in Saybrook College.