Gladys Hernandez, seen here working with TFA at Bowden ES, is now a STEM coordinator at the DoSeum. Photo courtesy of TFA.

This summer, five aspiring change-makers in the education field will work with San Antonio civic and nonprofit entities to broaden their understanding of education outcomes. Through the Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) fellowship program, members of Teach for America (TFA) are plugged into organizations that represent the many actors and stakeholders in public education.

“Educational inequity is influenced by a number of factors,” said Maria Fernandez, LEE regional director.

One of the little known facts about TFA is its broad scope of ambition. In addition to meeting the crucial need for teachers in the face of staffing shortages, TFA corps members often go on to engage other parts of the educational ecosystem. Their time in the classroom gives them firsthand exposure to what works and what doesn’t work, as well as exposes them to the various doors that shut in the face of their students.

LEE places corps members in strategic organizations that work to open those doors and create a more functional system. They are trained by collaborative individuals and hopefully gain insight into how to bring together neighborhoods, service providers, governing bodies, local businesses, and district administration.

This summer, LEE members will work as eight-week interns with P16 Plus Council of Greater Bexar County, San Antonio Independent School District, San Antonio Educational Partnership, National Council of La Raza, and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

While members could come from anywhere in the country, the five local interns all live in San Antonio, or are from San Antonio.

“I’m hoping that number increases next year,” Fernandez said.

Two TFA corps members will work through LEE in Denver and Los Angeles. Overall, about 165 corps members work as LEE fellows over the summer. 

Alumni have used their TFA and LEE experiences in two ways. Those who return to the classroom can take what they learn through LEE, and use it to advocate for their students. Those who go on to work in broader education networks can use their TFA classroom exposure to hone in on important issues, and bring student and teacher voices into the decision-making process.

Christoper Green will begin his third year at New Frontiers Charter School in August. He’ll spend his summer with Seth Rau, SAISD’s legislative affairs coordinator. Getting a firsthand look at the competing interests behind public and charter education has already been enlightening.

LEE fellow Christopher Green.
Christopher Green, LEE fellow.

“What you realize is that most people have good intentions, but because so many people have these interests, there’s compromise,” Green said.

Green has heard SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez and other district leaders talk about the District of Innovation plans, and has been impressed at the number of partnerships the district is pursuing. On his second day on the job, Rau took him to Austin to meet with a coalition of school choice advocates.

“It was a whirlwind first two days,” Green said.

One thing he has noticed already is how few minorities, teachers, and families are in the decision-making rooms. He would like to see that change in order to expand opportunities in smart, workable ways.

“I still have my feet firmly planted in the classroom, so I can see what is actually working and not working for kids in the state of Texas,” Green said.

He originally wanted to be a radio and television sportscaster, but feels more fulfilled teaching.

“My life’s mission has changed. I’ve discovered it through Teach for America. I want to make sure all students have equal opportunities,” Green said.

He plans to stay in the classroom, though understanding the system will help him build partnerships and access resources for his students. In his first two years with TFA, Green said he’s learned to value support, collaboration and community. He admires SAISD for modeling a collaborative approach on a district level.

“In this work (teaching), you can’t do it alone,” Green said.

Aura Cely has spent the last two years at KIPP Un Mundo Dual Language Academy. Working with students from Latino and immigrant backgrounds is close to her heart, and she wants to see options continue to expand for those populations. Cely will spend her summer with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), working with their parent advocacy program. NCLR has a nine-week program that teaches parents how to navigate the school system and available resources for their students. Cely’s work will add a civic engagement component to their curriculum, helping parents understand the importance of voting and other ways to advocate for their children.

As an immigrant herself, Cely has seen the needs of that community her entire life. Her family immigrated from Bogotá, Colombia when Cely reached school age, so her entire education took place in the United States. She has a first hand account of how many immigrant students struggle.

LEE fellow, Aura Celly.
Aura Celly, LEE fellow.

“Growing up I saw issues related to culturally responsive teaching,” Cely said.

Cultural disconnects led to access issues. Families did not always understand the need for early education, or have access to high-quality pre-kindergarten. As she progressed through the International Baccalaureate program at her school in Orlando, she saw how immigrant and English language-learners participated in rigorous college prep courses. Without abundant financial resources, those students needed competitive programs to help them win scholarships. Without the means to go to college, educational disparities became income disparities which became gaps in social justice.

Observing this pattern, Cely saw that early childhood education seemed like a great place to invest.

“I thought of teaching as the most foundational place to start a career in social justice,” Cely said. “Early childhood education is deep and near to my heart.”

Part of Cely’s passion is to see diverse opportunities available to all students. While parents with ample resources can choose from a variety of rich, whole-child curriculums and philosophies, parents with fewer resources generally have to pick from programs based on basic needs and standard programming.

“It’s one thing to have a child read well, its another thing to have them have confidence in themselves,” Cely said. “How do we expand that feeling to all students?”

Next year Cely will go to Atlanta to be certified in Montessori education. She plans to return to San Antonio to work with Montessori For All, a public charter school planning to open in the 2017-18 school year. The school aims to be a blend of socio-economic groups.

DisclosureLaura Saldivar Luna sits on the Rivard Report board and is the executive director of Teach for AmericaClick here to view a list of board members and here to view the businesses and individuals that contribute to the Rivard Report.

Top image: Gladys Hernandez, seen here working with Teach for America at Bowden Elementary School, is now a STEM coordinator at the DoSeum. Photo courtesy of TFA.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.