This story, by Bethany Lye, originally appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of The Recorder.
LaVaughn Wesley grew up the eldest child of a single mother of five. His family frequently relocated to start fresh, with young Wesley weathering at least 12 moves across three states.
Amid this shifting backdrop, one ritual took anchor in Wesley’s childhood: his mother would get him a new pair of shoes each fall. “They had to last me the entire school year—just that one pair of shoes,” he recalls. “It was a big deal.”
Wesley, now the father of a 4-year-old girl, had this memory in mind while student teaching in the gray and gritty neighborhood of McKeesport, Pa., last year. A young boy entered his classroom one morning wearing shoes so well-worn, they were losing their soles. “Things like that matter a lot to middle schoolers,” says Wesley, 31. “I thought about my mother and all of our struggles. And I knew what being that boy was like.”
Wesley went home, grabbed a pair of Jordan’s from his own closet, and handed ownership over to the student the next day.
“The love that I got back from him was incredible,” recalls Wesley, who is now leading his own classroom at the same school—Propel McKeesport.
The fact that Wesley crossed paths with this student wasn’t by chance—it was by intentional design, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps. This program, now in its second year, partners Chatham University with Propel Schools and aims to graduate social justice leaders who are primed to teach in some of Allegheny County’s most economically underserved communities.
As a member of the Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps inaugural class, Wesley earned his Pennsylvania teaching certification and a master’s degree from Chatham in just 15 months.
The program, which requires participants to take night classes while teaching in a Propel classroom with a mentor for much of the workweek, isn’t for the faint of heart. “It was as hard as I have ever worked both on an academic and a personal level,” says Wesley.
As part of the program, Chatham reduces tuition fees by 65 percent, and students receive a scholarship that covers the remainder of their tuition bill plus a monthly stipend until they earn their degree. In return, the participants must commit to teaching in the Propel School system for the next three years.
Chatham’s Program Director of Education Kristin Harty runs the University’s half of the Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps, and she believes the program is the only one of its kind in the region.
Her counterpart at Propel Schools, Randy Bartlett, says that the partnership grew out of a clear need to fill classrooms with teachers who were passionate about equity in education—and who could bring stability to urban schools, which have long struggled with a high turnover rate among staff.
“As an organization, Propel recognized a teacher shortage and decided to not only create a new pathway for teachers but find individuals who were social justice minded,” says Bartlett, who serves as the director of teacher residency and research for Propel Schools. “We made a decision that we needed to turn the model on its head.”
Today, the program is marked by a multiyear commitment to developing teachers and comprehensive wraparound support along the way to ensure that they succeed. “This is not your typical training program,” says Bartlett. “We are not preparing students who might go teach somewhere else. We know for a fact that these teachers will be teaching in our classrooms the following year. They are a part of the Propel family from day one—and that makes a big difference.”
Harty notes that another defining feature of the program is its dedication to training teachers who grew up in urban communities similar to those of their students. “These teachers understand the culture, needs and strengths of the neighborhoods they are serving, and there is a strong trust that grows from that common connection.”
Wesley, who spent some of his boyhood in McKeesport, fits this requirement to a tee. And his most obvious connection is an important one: he looks the part.
At Propel McKeesport, which spans kindergarten through eighth grade, 71 percent of its 400-student body is black. Wesley is also black, and a rarity in his profession, where roughly 2 percent of public school teachers match both his gender and race. Add in the tattoos covered by his perfectly pressed dress shirt, his nose piercing and the diamond stud in his ear, and Wesley doesn’t just fall outside the mold. He obliterates it. This seemingly artificial factor matters. When Wesley initiated a discussion with his social studies class about racial profiling earlier this year, he spoke from experience—and his students knew it.
Even more than looking the part, Wesley has lived the part. He considers his backstory critical to his success in the classroom where, every single day, he is watching life repeat itself. And he knows firsthand that some of his students are navigating obstacles that are less perceptible than well-worn shoes.
“Some of these kids don’t have food at home. Some come from mentally and physically abusive homes—or homes where education isn’t valued and is just a day-to-day thing,” he says. “I see myself in all of these kids. I grew up in the neighborhoods that they lived in. And I have roamed the streets where they live,” he says.
This perspective has helped Wesley set some realistic expectations walking into his teaching career. For one, he’s not out to fix anyone. “As an educator, I know that you cannot have the cape on your back and think that every child seeds to be saved.” He also has a clear sense of what success looks like in his classroom: “I want to get through lessons on a day-to-day basis. And I want to keep things organized and create a culture that is warm, inviting and where students feel comfortable enough to open up and engage.”
Michon Gallaway, 13, is an eighth-grader at Propel McKeesport. From her vantage point in the third row of Wesley’s social studies class, he’s already hitting those marks.
“He understands us. He knows us,” says Gallaway, who recently invited her teacher to watch her perform for her church (he accepted—and kept his promise). “He’s also very caring and a really great teacher.”
Gallaway is equally complimentary of her Propel education. “I was struggling a lot before I came here,” she says, noting that her mother initiated the move from the nearby public school. “Now, I have all A’s in my classes, and it will help me get into an excellent high school and a really good college.”
The latest public statistics on Propel McKeesport support Gallaway’s optimism. When it comes to standardized test scores, sixth graders at Propel McKeesport are outperforming their peers at the nearby middle school at every turn. GreatSchools, a nonprofit that uses a 10-point scale to evaluate the quality of K-12 schools across the country, echoes this assessment, scoring Propel McKeesport decisively higher overall (6) than its local counterpart (3).
Bartlett and Harty are confident that the Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps program will continue to advance the quality of a Propel School education. And with more teachers like Wesley filling classrooms—and staying put—it’s easy to see why.
As for Wesley, he says he hopes to one day serve as a principal of a Propel school. But for now, he’s focused on making the most of where he stands today—and that’s at the head of the classroom, leading by example. In this role, Wesley is keenly aware that he’s teaching his students a lesson that will never check the box of any state-mandated education requirement. And he’s ok with that.
“They know my story. And, together, we’re building theirs,” he says. “I always tell them, ‘You can succeed, no matter where you come from.’ And, as long as they keep showing up, listening and working hard, I’m going to help them get there.”