Hampton U. student is moved to join Teach for America

By Danyelle Gary

As a parole officer intern last spring at the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice in Newport News, Va., Djeneba “DJ” Cherif had her future mapped out.

Graduate from college.

Become a lawyer.

Become a judge.

That was the plan, until this 21-year-old was introduced to teenagers who only saw education as a means to stay out of jail.

Those youth changed Cherif’s plans. She thought to herself, “How can I help kids before I am forced to defend them [in court].”

Her answer: Join Teach for America.

This non-profit program recruits and trains college graduates to teach in low-performing school districts for a minimum of two years.

Competition to get in is fierce. According to an April 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal, Teach for America rejected more than 30,000 of America’s top college seniors last year, which was more than Harvard Law School and Wall Street investment firm Golden Sachs.

Teach for America was founded in 1990 with the intentions of admitting students from a variety of academic fields, not just education.

The organization says it looks for individuals who display leadership qualities and interpersonal skills and who also represent diverse backgrounds and experiences. Out of the 2010 recruits, almost one-third are people of color and 20 percent are the first in their family to attend college.

In 2010, TFA recruited and placed nearly 4,500 students in its 39 regions including Chicago and Atlanta. Cherif, a Hampton University senior majoring in sociology with a minor in criminal justice, will teach math to secondary education students in Detroit.

Desire to teach

A few weeks ago, Cherif went to a theater in Newport News to see a highly discussed documentary that highlights the failures of the American public education system.

The film, “Waiting for Superman” by Davis Guggenheim, details the Washington, D.C., education lottery system in which public school children, who are often from financially burdened families, submit their names for acceptance to local charter schools.

She cried.

“The public school system is failing,” Cherif said. “I need to go into education before [children] are distracted.”

Next year, she will relocate to Detroit, a city in which one-third of its population lives below the poverty line, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. It is one of the organization’s newest regions, Cherif said, which is one reason why she chose the city over areas in North Carolina, New York, the District of Columbia and Georgia.

“Test scores suggest that only one in three of Detroit fourth-graders can correctly subtract 75 from 301, even when given a choice of three multiple-choice answers,” according to the TFA website.

“There is a huge problem that exists with education and we can do something about it,” said Monique Moore, a Teach for America recruitment director.

But it goes beyond education. Participants often work with students who lack self-confidence, Moore said, and do not realize their full potential. This has a lot to do with Cherif’s passion for teaching and her desire “to build relationships with kids and possibly change their lives.”

“You give a worksheet to a child with two plus two on it and they’ll put four,” Cherif said, “but if you give them a word problem, they’re confused; they’re lost. You have to relate it to their lives for them to understand it.”

Aleese Gooden, one of Cherif’s closest friends and a fellow senior at Hampton, does not doubt her friend’s ability to connect with and communicate to Detroit students.

“She will have a positive influence on them,” said Gooden, a broadcast journalism major. “She puts her all into something she’s passionate about.”

Related experience

Like many of her soon-to-be students living in the poverty-stricken and violent-induced neighborhoods of Detroit, Cherif comes from humble beginnings. She attended the Manhattan, N.Y.-based James McCune Smith School, an elementary school, she said with a predominantly black and Hispanic population.

Cherif’s Harlem neighborhood was as diverse as her school.

Although some of her friends had parents who were “crack addicts, drug addicts and alcoholics,” she said, people in her community still remained close and were a big part of her life.

“I always feel like I’m obligated to visit people there because they made sure I stayed out of trouble,” she said. “I owe it to them to serve my community because that’s where I grew up.”

After her fifth grade year, her family moved to the majority white, suburban, college town of Ann Arbor, Mich., which Cherif said is largely conservative from appearance.

While attending Ypsilanti High School, her passion for education flourished. Cherif became a student representative on the board of education and gained first-hand exposure on how a school system is run.

She currently serves as this year’s student representative to the board of trustees at Hampton University and plans to eventually become a superintendent in an urban area.

Now a college senior, after graduation, Cherif will travel back to Michigan to a familiar setting, one that includes a different set of young minds to mold.

Gooden said, “It will be a challenge, but I don’t think it’s anything that DJ can’t handle.”

The writer is a junior at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications