WALLA WALLA - As her college graduation neared, LesLee Bickford seemed sure of her next step. She had her sights set on law school, what she regarded as a good fit for the political science degree she would soon earn.
Yet through a chance discussion with a friend, Bickford ended up picking a career path that was among her least likely choices.
Seven years since graduating from Western Washington University, Bickford is being recognized as an exceptional teacher in a book recapping 20 years of success stories through Teach for America. The national education corps draws and trains top college graduates to become skilled teachers.
Bickford, who graduated from Walla Walla High School in 1999, got hooked to education through Teach for America, and spent her two years of commitment to the program teaching math and science to sixth-grade students at John P. Turner Middle School in Philadelphia.
Each of those years, Bickford helped students rise from skill levels below their grade level to achieving grade-level standards.
Because of that, Bickford's experiences and techniques are among those chronicled in "Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teachers' Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap." The book looks back on Teach for America's 20-year history, describes success stories and outlines strategies to success in the classroom.
A passion to help address the nation's achievement gap was what drew Bickford to a career path she had otherwise dismissed.
"I definitely didn't want to teach," she said. "It was one of those things that I thought I definitely didn't want to do."
Bickford learned about Teach for America from a friend. The two-year commitment to teach in some of the country's poorest and most in-need schools, while earning a teaching credential, became a positive draw for Bickford.
In the summer of 2003, fresh out of college, Bickford headed to Los Angeles to begin her training. At 99th Street Elementary in Watts, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, Bickford taught summer school to fourth-graders, some of whom couldn't yet read.
"I had no idea of the extent of the problem until I did my training in Los Angeles," she said.
The conditions of the school and neighborhood were also eye-opening. Lockdowns at the school because of shootings or armed subjects nearby were not uncommon.
"I think the scariest part was that for the kids, that was perfectly normal," she said.
In the fall Bickford moved to Turner Middle School in Philadelphia. The task at hand for those first two years was daunting. Bickford strived to get her students to grade level and ready for the seventh grade. Yet on average her students entered the sixth-grade with a third-grade knowledge of math. A few struggled with single-digit arithmetic - a skill typically covered in first grade.
Bickford's success lies in the numbers. By the end of her first year, her students averaged 86 percent of math standards. Of her science students, most of whom had never taken a science class before, the results were also striking, with the students averaging 84 percent on sixth-grade science standards.
Without a secret formula for the success, Bickford attributes it primarily to a combination of hard work, high standards, passion and discipline.
Years working as a day camp counselor and director for the Walla Walla YMCA proved most rewarding in the classroom.
"I think my biggest thing working for me was I had really strong classroom management from the beginning. That definitely is the toughest thing. Having them in their seats, listening and being respectful."
She set high standards for her students, and was open and honest with them from the start on where they stood academically.
Then, she gave of her time and self to get results.
Early on, Bickford held daily lunch dates with each of her students, starting with those most at risk of failing. She created flash cards with information on all her students and their backgrounds and reviewed them at night.
She also reached out to parents and guardians, getting to know them and making herself accessible.
"I had parents and guardians on my side from the first week of school," she said.
Then came the work of keeping her students focused and learning, while extending the necessary care, support and understanding.
"I deeply believed that my kids could do this," she said. "I would teach all day, then teach an extended day after school to do basic skills."
She also launched a basketball team for her students, the majority of whom were boys, to offer a fun and rewarding break.
While teaching, Bickford was also juggling her studies for her teacher's certification and master's degree.
"It was exceptionally draining," Bickford said. "I worked, really all I did was work for those two years."
Bickford eventually left Philadelphia to work in Minneapolis, where her husband opened a charter school and she continued with Teach for America at the organizational level. After three years, Bickford accepted a director's job with Teach for America in Philadelphia, and returned this summer.
Being back in Philadelphia had some immediate rewards. Bickford learned many of her students, the first sixth-graders she taught starting in 2003, graduated from high school in the spring. Her second class of students are seniors this year, and hopefully on a path to graduation.
"It's exciting," she said. "In Philly, you have less than a 50 percent chance of graduating high school. Keeping my kids in was a big thing."
Bickford is now the senior managing director of Teach for America programs for the mid-Atlantic region. She still gets a lot of classroom time, but uses it to guide future teachers toward success.
"There's a really high bar for what's expected," she said. "The program itself is very competitive to get into. So you have people who deeply believe that our kids can succeed despite the obstacles."
From her own lessons learned in the classroom, Bickford has been able to draw on what works and what needs to be improved to help children thrive academically.
She said early childhood education programs are one key to ensure more children start kindergarten equally prepared. She also felt more accountability was needed at colleges of education and within the system. Good teachers should be recognized and modeled, and those lessons then shared. Teachers must be evaluated, but the administrators doing the evaluating must also have a solid knowledge of what works.
"I'm a huge proponent for measuring teacher effectiveness, and holding accountability there," she said. "The districts need to do more, and the teachers need to be held accountable."
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.