One sunny July morning in 1999, on a whim, I called the Philadelphia School district and made an appointment with a recruiter. I thought of myself as a reporter, but I was looking for a job. Like many cities suffering from a teacher shortage, Philadelphia still needed 1,200 teachers and was taking almost anyone with a college degree. I had written hundreds of stories about education and always harbored an interest in teaching. Still, I'd never considered actually doing it, until then. "We need you more than you need us," the recruiter said. He gave me a folder of paperwork including a background check for the state police, and there wasn't much more involved.
I had mixed feelings. My colleagues at The Philadelphia Inquirer -- we were finishing a two-year reporting program there -- were heading to staff positions at papers like the Orlando Sentinel and the Raleigh News & Observer. I didn't want to throw away the journalism career I'd worked hard for since my college newspaper days. I'd interned unpaid through college and reported for a year from Chile, primarily for AP/Dow Jones. When I returned, the Inquirer hired me as one of its "two-year correspondents" to cover southern Chester County, Pennsylvania, a beat that included three school districts, twenty-seven townships, and a mushroom industry that employed 10,000 Mexican immigrants. I gravitated to school stories out of interest and a sense that they were important. From my suburban outpost, I made page one occasionally by regionalizing a story on subjects like revolving-door principals or questionable strategies to raise test scores. But I always felt uncertain about my stories about schools, as though I were guessing at what was really happening inside them.
When the two years ended, I interviewed for a staff position on the Inquirer's city education desk, but the beat went to an education reporter with a decade of experience. Meanwhile, my affection for newspapers was waning; there had been a lot of deflating news about corporate ownership and declining circulation. At age twenty-five, I was already questioning if newspaper journalism could be the vehicle for change I wanted it to be. I was eager to make a difference.
So, when I saw the article about the teacher shortage I got excited. If I taught for a year I would be able to see the real issues firsthand. I could have an effect on education in a way I wasn't having with journalism. And I wasn't throwing away my career, I reasoned, because if I wanted to come back to newspapers, I would be an even stronger education reporter. I decided to do it. Six weeks later, I stepped into my story.
My school was Julia de Burgos Bilingual Middle Magnet School, a 100-year-old stone building in The Badlands, the nickname for a heroin-ravaged Puerto Rican neighborhood in North Philadelphia. City test scores ranked it as the worst middle school in the city. At my first teachers' meeting in September, the new principal, Jayne Gibbs, warned...