Motor City Motivator
Alumna Leads Teach for America to Revitalize Hometown
By Karen Shih '09
Photos Courtesy of Teach for America, Detroit
Type Illustration By Jasmine Byers
With a population that’s shrunk by nearly half since 1980, student test scores that rank among the nation’s lowest and a staggeringly high violent crime rate, Detroit might strike some as a hopeless cause.
Not Tiffany Williams. The city’s best public schools didn’t prepare her for the rigors of college, she says, but what she did learn from her teachers was grit and determination. And now with two master’s degrees, including one in community planning in 2008 at UMD, she’s back as the executive director of Teach For America’s (TFA) Detroit region, determined to turn around the city by turning around the schools.
She’s pushing her teaching corps to create tough curricula and to instill an expectation of achievement that will prepare students for college. Then she hopes to bring those college graduates back home.
“For many, the ‘golden ticket’ is moving to Chicago or New York or D.C.,” she says. “That’s pulling away resources and the livelihood of our community.”
At TFA, which recruits young college graduates and other professionals to teach two years in disadvantaged areas nationwide, Williams has climbed the ranks as the Detroit teaching corps has grown from 100 to nearly 300 since 2010. The incoming cohort of TFA teachers this fall is nearly 50 percent Michiganders.
Williams started as a TFA special education teacher in Philadelphia after college at the University of Michigan. She then came to Maryland for its urban planning program, finding a shared passion with Associate Professor Alex Chen.
“She’s so smart and so gifted. She can pull together her diverse background in teaching, planning and working with the community to make a difference,” says Chen, who worked with her to teach local high school students how to study and contribute to policies affecting their communities.
It may be years before she sees Detroit students returning as young adults in the workforce, but they’re making progress in other ways: TFA teachers are introducing students to outside-the-classroom opportunities like robotics and math competitions, as well as ACT prep classes.
“There’s a different type of urgency when I walk into classrooms and literally see my little cousin in the seats,” she says.
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