Teaching program gives helping hand to Miami students

Students laughed as paper airplanes flew through the air in Catalina Hidalgo’s eighth grade science classroom at Jose De Diego Middle School.

This wasn’t just about having fun. The paper planes were part of a science lab report on velocity.

Hidalgo, 23, started a five-second countdown, signaling that the lab project was over and the students were in their seat before she was finished.

Now in her second year as an instructor in the Teach for America program, Hidalgo is one of the many leaders around the country who help students in low income areas get a fair education.

“I love teaching my students what it means to hold high expectations and what it means to enjoy science and learning,” said Hidalgo, who is originally from Miami. “Having them really understand the content and seeing them grow throughout the year is just an amazing thing for me.”

Teach For America Week, which ends May 16, allows leaders across Miami-Dade County to serve as guest teachers in different schools.

On Tuesday, Hidalgo’s students had their own guest instructor – Gale Lewis, an assistant Miami public defender.

“I really like working with kids because with kids I can make a difference.” said Lewis, who started out working in Juvenile Court after law school. “Kids are the ones that need more help than anyone else.”

She explained how deep her concern is in making sure troubled kids succeed.

A University of Florida Law School graduate, Lewis focuses on defending the accused, guilty or non guilty, and fighting to insure that they can get their lives in order.

She told students about a 13-year-old ex-gang member who was accused of burglary and was to be tried as an adult – which would have meant a harsher punishment.

She convinced the court to send the teen’s case back to Juvenile Court, thus decreasing the possible severity of his sentence.

“He’ll tell you, as he told me, that if he did not get arrested that night, he wouldn’t be alive today,” Lewis said.

Hidalgo’s students opened up to Lewis, asking questions ranging from perjury to online bullying to restrictions on house arrest.

“It was really good,” said Kevin Henry, 14. “It felt like it taught me how to prevent myself from getting arrested.”

With almost 28,000 teachers in more than 40 regions nationwide, Teach For America works to expand opportunities for students growing up in poverty-strickened and low income areas.

The program arrived in Miami in 2003 and now has 300 corps members teaching at low-performing schools. Miami-Dade has about 28 schools participating in the program.

Jose De Diego Middle has 16 Teach For America teachers, including Hidalgo. She immersed herself in the craft of teaching, getting to know her students and their needs.

“It really hit home for me to be a part of this movement.” said Hidalgo. “The achievement gap is very real in Miami and we need to make sure that all schools have the same quality resources needed.”