From IWU Magazine, Spring 2011
Teaching at the Grass Roots
Drew Snodgrass ’07 found the ideal place
for him to make a difference: in the classroom.
After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan in 2007, Drew Snodgrass joined Teach for America
(TFA), a not-for-profit organization that recruits and trains college graduates to
teach in low-income communities across the United States. He spent three years teaching
second grade in the Mississippi Delta, staying on even after he had earned his teaching
certificate and fulfilled his two-year commitment to the program. This year he moved
to Washington, D.C., to teach at DC Prep, a public charter school founded in 2003
to serve as a positive example for urban educational reform.
As issues of school funding and reform continue to make national headlines, we asked
Drew about his experiences working on the front lines of American public education.
During Homecoming Week, Snodgrass (above) shared his IWU experiences with students.
The event is designed to inspire DC Prep students to attend college by learning about
their teachers’ alma maters.
What made you decide to join the Teach for America corps?
I believe all children deserve an equal opportunity to go to college and reap the
benefits of a high-quality education. After studying political science and religion
at IWU, I knew that equal opportunity didn’t exist for everyone, and I wanted to do
something about it. I had an academic understanding of inequality; after college I
wanted to get my hands dirty working to fix it. Teach for America offered me the chance
to work on the front lines of that battle. Teaching really personalizes the struggle
for equal rights. When you’re teaching, you’re not just standing up against the idea
of injustice; you’re fighting for actual children and their actual futures.
How do you respond to critics who say that TFA corps members are often unprepared
for the challenges they face and that they are displacing experienced teachers?
TFA corps members, by and large, do not displace veteran teachers. TFA corps members
fill openings in distressed districts that can’t find qualified candidates. There
aren’t enough qualified ed-school graduates out there to fill all the teaching vacancies,
especially in troubled schools.
Teach for America is a very tough program, and it is definitely not for everyone.
I agree that it throws fresh college graduates headfirst into some of the most difficult
classroom situations imaginable. It is an extreme challenge, but TFA’s selection process
and training program are specifically tailored for that purpose. The training institute
is not simply a shortened version of teachers’ college; it’s intensive training for
a very specific kind of triage teaching. I think in the end it should be judged by
its results, and the evidence is quite clear that the organization’s impact on the
students it serves is positive.
It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I had amazing people supporting me
through the whole experience, and the program succeeded at making me an effective
teacher. It also succeeded in turning me into a lifelong activist for educational
What was it like to teach in the Mississippi Delta?
I worked in Coahoma County in northwestern Mississippi, a region I studied in Dr.
[Tari] Renner’s “The American South and the Politics of Race” class my senior year.
It is one of the most economically depressed and racially segregated regions in the
country. After Brown v. Board of Education forced resistant Delta school districts to integrate, private “academies” sprang
up throughout the region where white parents sent their children to avoid integration
with African Americans. To this day the vast majority of white schoolchildren in the
region attend private schools, while the majority of African American children attend
struggling public schools.
I taught in a very small school among the cotton fields near three tiny rural towns.
The school was a great place to work. My colleagues treated me like part of the family
and encouraged me through my rough first months of teaching. The school was struggling
to meet its academic goals — most of my students came to me one and two years behind
grade-level — and schoolwide disorganization caused many frustrating challenges, but
the people I worked with were truly wonderful to me.
My students were also a constant inspiration. They worked extraordinarily hard and
accomplished great things in spite of the unbelievable challenges they faced.
Which of those students most inspired you?
Many of them did, but one in particular stands out for me. At the beginning of my
second year, I got phone calls from teachers warning me about an incoming student.
One of those teachers told me that, in 30 years of teaching, she’d never dealt with
a more challenging, hyperactive child. She had been labeled by adults her whole life
— a “behavior problem” whose parents “didn’t care” and whom “you just have to deal
with.” She came to me far behind grade level in reading and even worse in math, but
I noticed in the first week that she was a quick learner. I worked hard to earn her
respect and reached out for help from friends with experience in behavioral disorders
to teach her strategies to control her behavior. I spent a lot of energy building
a respectful relationship with her parents, encouraging them to make sure she was
on time every day, and letting them see her success. I held her to a high standard,
which by the middle of the year she was rising to meet. By year’s end, her reading
level had grown by a year and a half and she mastered more than 80 percent of the
second-grade math standards. I loved telling her third-grade teacher that she was
a great kid and an excellent student.
What made you decide to take your current job with DC Prep?
When I moved to D.C., I knew I wanted to continue teaching students from low-income
communities, but I wanted to know what that work looks like at a very high level.
I wanted to be a part of a school that was producing impressive academic results across
the whole school, even with economically disadvantaged populations. I also wanted
to be surrounded by outstanding teachers so that I could observe their practices and
improve my own. DC Prep was really a perfect fit on all counts.
Washington, D.C., is reputed to have one of the nation’s most dysfunctional school
districts. How is DC Prep an exception?
There are a few key elements that many high-achieving urban schools have in common.
First, our students spend more hours in school, from 7:30 to 4:15. Second, we use
an outcomes-oriented, data-driven approach to instruction. We use teaching approaches
that work, and if the evidence we collect indicates that they don’t, we change and
tweak them until we find a way that does work. Third, our school maintains a coherent
culture of very high expectations across the entire school environment, emphasizing
hard work, cooperation, diligence and constant messaging that the students are headed
to college. Our students thrive and excel because they know that it is expected of
By what measures is DC Prep successful?
Our school has three campuses serving students from preschool through eighth grade.
Last year, 100 percent of DC Prep’s eighth graders scored proficient in math, compared
to 50 percent of all D.C. eighth graders, and 92 percent scored proficient in reading,
compared to 49 percent citywide.
Even more important than test scores is the fact that 100 percent of DC Prep graduates
have gone on to college-preparatory high schools, and 80 percent have been accepted
into competitive-enrollment high schools. The inaugural DC Prep class is currently
in its senior year of high school, and the school’s goal is 75 percent of our graduates
enrolling in four-year colleges and universities. DC Prep really is providing a path
to college for a population of students who otherwise would have fallen through the
cracks of the system.
Snodgrass works with second-grade students at DC Prep, a public charter school in
I can say anecdotally that the second graders who come to me having been at DC Prep
since preschool are the most well-prepared students I have ever taught in terms of
foundational skills and learning habits. Roughly a quarter of the second graders in
my class this year are two years ahead in both reading and math — that is to say,
they are performing on a fourth-grade level. That is the direct result of having two
or three very effective teachers in a row, which is exactly what our communities need
if all kids are going to have the option of going to college.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a teacher, both in terms of yourself
and the quality of education in the United States?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned about myself is that it’s not good enough to have
the right opinions. Teaching isn’t glamorous, and often it doesn’t feel like you’re
doing something big and world-changing. But I learned that it is absolutely necessary
work and, when done effectively, is incredibly rewarding.
In terms of the quality of education in this country, we are definitely in the midst
of an educational crisis. Recent data indicate that the achievement gap between African
Americans and white or Asian students is growing, especially among males. But my experiences
have taught me that this situation is not inevitable. I know that the problem is not
the students, who can and will rise to any challenge. There are examples of outstanding
schools all over the country where poor students consistently outperform their peers
at more affluent schools. I have seen for myself what is possible when low-income
students are motivated, challenged and rewarded for academic excellence — even when
all the odds are stacked against them.
There are encouraging signs that things are moving in the right direction. In the
Delta, I was struck by how badly people wanted the situation to change, on both sides
of the racial and economic divide. Even white citizens whose children attended the
private academy wanted to see high-quality public schools and wanted to see true integration
I don’t think funding and “resources” are the biggest problem. My school in Mississippi
was awash in grant money and technological gadgets. We had pricey technology collecting
dust in cabinets. What’s missing in most struggling schools is leadership and human
resources. We need excellent teachers to teach in the poorest regions, which will
require drastic changes to the way teachers are compensated. We also need innovative
and dedicated leaders to make the necessary structural changes to our school systems.