Cornell University

March 16 2010

A Course of Action

Saint-Preux '08 reflects on Teach for America experience

Jennifer Saint-Preux '08 hated high school math and steered clear of the subject at Cornell, except for ILR's requisite statistics course.

No wonder the Teach for America volunteer was apprehensive when she received her assignment: teach the quadratic formula and other tenets of high school math.

When Saint Preux's students at John Bartram High School in southwest Philadelphia figured out why f(x) = a(x - h)² + k, uneasiness gave way to joy.

"Oh, yeah," the Teach for America volunteer remembers thinking, "that’s right!"

"I felt so happy because they intuitively made the connections," Saint-Preux said in an interview.

In June, she completes her second year as a teacher in the prestigious national program.

"When I got here, I was able to make my way," Saint-Preux said.

It took some doing, though, to become the teacher who could deliver students to the breakthrough moment.

During her first four months on the job, Saint-Preux spent hours and hours -- often staying up until 3 a.m. -- preparing lessons plans for three different math courses.

Going into class unprepared was not an option, she said.

"These kids are really smart," Saint-Preux said. "Students can really tell if you don’t know what you're teaching. They’re very perceptive."

Teaching, Saint-Preux said, has changed her.

"I have a totally different perspective. It definitely made me more decisive in seeing what needs to be done. When you're a teacher, you have to synthesize information and set a course of action," she said.

Saint-Preux leads three extracurricular activities -- mock trial, dance team and step team.

She sets an example for students. Many have grown up in poverty. Some have criminal records.

"They see me, a young black woman, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. If I can do it, they can do it and that's the most rewarding thing about teaching."

Five of her students plan to apply to Cornell, said Saint-Preux, who declined an offer from her school’s principal to continue teaching next year.

Instead, she said, she will make an impact on education in another way – by helping to open a charter school.

First, though, Saint Preux plans to earn a law degree. She hopes to begin at Cornell Law School or Howard University Law School this fall.