Relentless Pursuit

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-03-10
  • Publisher: Vintage

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When Locke High School opened its doors in 1967, the residents of Watts celebrated it as a sign of the changes promised by Los Angeles. But four decades later, first-year Teach for America recruits Rachelle, Phillip, Hrag, and Taylor are greeted by a school that looks more like a prison, with bars, padlocks, and chains all over. With little training and experience, these four will be asked to produce academic gains in students who are among the most disadvantaged in the country.Relentless Pursuitlays bare the experiences of these four teachers to evaluate the strengths and peculiarities of Teach for America and a social reality that has become inescapable.

Author Biography

Donna Foote is a freelance journalist and former Newsweek correspondent. She lives in Manhattan Beach, California with her husband and fourteen-year-old son.



When the lights went off in room 241 during her fourth-period special ed biology class, Rachelle didn’t think anything of it. The bells seemed to ring constantly at Locke High School. Why should she expect the lights to work?

This Monday was the first day of the first full week of the first year of the first job of her professional life. Never mind that she had had only five weeks of training. Over the summer, Rachelle Snyder, psychology major and former captain of the University of Pennsylvania soccer team, had become Miss Snyder—or sometimes just Miss—special education teacher at Locke High School in Watts. The transition had been surprisingly easy to make. Except for the fifteen pounds she gained, Teach For America’s “institute,” aka boot camp, didn’t bother her. It was like soccer training: she woke up early, worked hard, got the job done. She was exhausted—they all were. But during breaks, when other teachers-in-training were having panic attacks, Rachelle would catnap on the concrete benches that line the walkway along Locke’s inner quad, her long blond hair bunched up beneath her head like a pillow, trousers rolled up, her pale skin bathed in the harsh white light of the L.A. sun.

The day had started well. She’d gotten to school early, reviewed her lesson plan, and made sure that the desks were still arranged in clusters of four, exactly the way she’d left them on Friday. The morning had flown by. The kids in the early periods were attentive, eager to please. She particularly liked her girl-heavy third period. Three fourteen-year-olds had children of their own at home, and a fourth was pregnant. She found that out after she had the kids make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a way to introduce the idea of steps and procedures in science. “You think I don’t know how to make peanut butter sandwiches?” retorted one girl. “I got a baby at home and he always be screamin’ for them.”

Maybe it was Rachelle’s blond hair and light blue eyes—the girls seemed drawn to her. Some even brought their friends to the classroom to get a look. “See!” they squealed. “She looks just like a Barbie doll!” Rachelle couldn’t access their computerized Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), the government-mandated plans of instruction and services specially tailored to meet the specific needs of each student with a diagnosed learning disability. So she had no way of knowing how these smart, streetwise girls had come to be sitting there, hanging on her every word.

She had a pretty good idea how the twenty boys in her fourth-period class got there. They were in special ed because their behavior interfered with their ability to learn. It was certainly interfering with her ability to teach. These boys were rude, crude, and disrespectful. She didn’t think it had anything to do with her gender, her race, or her youth. She was reasonably certain that they behaved badly with every authority figure.

It was only five days into the school year, and she felt she was already losing control of period four. She had been wrestling with how to handle all her special ed kids, but these boys were especially troubling. Her instinct was to try to win them over with kindness. They’d probably had enough tough single women in their lives. She wanted to show them something else.Do I continue to be nice?If I do,will they break me?As the boys straggled in, shorts hanging low on their hips, T-shirts on inside out, some with do-rags hugging their heads, she’d felt tense.

She worried about two of her African American students—cousins Martel and Deangelo—who’d almost gotten jumped on their way to school the Friday before. The boys had come into class that day subdued, scared to leave the building unless she walke

Excerpted from Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America by Donna Foote
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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