• New teacher sees potential in the neighborhood where he grew up

    August 23, 2014 2:00 pm • By Elisa Crouch ecrouch@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8119

    ST. LOUIS • He had five minutes to get things ready — straighten a few desks, put the class expectations back on the screen, glance over the class list.

    Jonathan Hamilton stood at the door as his seventh-grade math students filed into his room on the first day of school recently at Langston Middle School in the St. Louis Public Schools.

    It was 9:20 a.m. Time for second period to start.

    “Welcome, my little people,” he said.

    The 14 pupils watched as their teacher moved around the room, talking about class expectations and what they could expect from him this year. Hamilton spent all summer training as a Teach For America corps member, learning how to reach students in low-performing urban schools.

    It was time for introductions. “Robert. You start us off here,” Hamilton said. The boy sitting by the windows looked at his desk and said nothing. One by one, the rest of the pupils around the room quietly said their names and the elementary schools they had attended.

    Langston is in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood and has a predominantly African-American student body. Nearly all the pupils come from poverty. Just 6 percent were proficient in math in 2013.

    “I was just like you,” Hamilton said, putting a picture of a little boy in a superhero’s cape on the screen. “No, I did not go to Langston. I went to Turner Middle School. Went to Sumner High School. I grew up around the corner from here.”

    Hamilton, who is African-American, graduated in 2008 from Sumner. His freshman year, a bullet struck his abdomen as he and three friends walked from his cousin’s house. He’s still not sure who fired the shot.

    The moment was a turning point. It caused him to take school seriously.

    “I wanted out,” he said. “College became a focus.”

    Hamilton went to Iowa Wesleyan College and in 2012, graduated from Truman State University with a history degree. But rather than using it as a ticket to somewhere else, he returned to St. Louis. He began working as a long-term substitute teacher at Carr Lane Middle School — and was surprised how natural it felt.

    Hamilton walked around the room — with its lavender-painted walls and emerald green window shades. The 14 sets of eyes were on him as he explained his expectations. Some knew Hamilton already.

    Last year, he was the school’s disciplinarian, using his booming voice and football build to keep students in line. But he preferred the classroom experience he’d had at Carr Lane. He liked the structure of it.

    Teach for America seeks to place promising college graduates in classrooms that often struggle to find quality educators. Increasingly, it is moving away from being an organization overwhelmingly filled with white, Ivy League grads. Its corps members are increasingly diverse. Of the 53 new corps members in St. Louis Public Schools, Normandy, Riverview Gardens and charter schools, 35 percent are minorities, and 44 percent are from a low-income background, according to the group.

    Hamilton says middle-school kids are “pots of potential.” He often looks at them and sees himself. He understands why some of them get angry. He remembers his mother struggling and his father not being there and the rage that sometimes built as a result.

    “This is your classroom,” Hamilton said, walking between desks. “It’s yours. The work is going to be done by you.”

    This year, they would learn to love math, he said. It’s the subject he gravitated toward even as a student at Cote Brilliante Elementary, where a fifth-grade teacher saw potential in him that he only later understood.

    Even then he found solace in numbers, concepts and structures — the few things in the world that seemed to make sense.