Rachel Bennett Yanov never intended to be a teacher; she planned a career as a politician, or maybe an investment banker. But after a chance meeting with representatives recruiting for Teach for America during her junior year at Georgetown University, Rachel’s path took a yearlong detour.
When she graduated in 2003, she came to Arizona to teach in a Roosevelt School District classroom in Phoenix. There, she fell in love with teaching, the kids, the parents and the community. She stayed on after the first year and quickly became convinced that she could do more to guide students from impoverished backgrounds on a path toward college. So she decided to open her own school. In 2009, armed with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from ASU, she founded Phoenix Collegiate Academy, a charter school for college-bound students in South Phoenix, where she serves as principal.
Vicki: Why did you postpone your original career plans to spend a year teaching?
Rachel: I was going to go be a politician, or work on Wall Street. I was all set. Then, junior year, I started to realize that almost everyone I knew at Georgetown had gone to private school. My parents were lucky that we had a great public school—I was able to compete at Georgetown and hold my own—but how many kids weren’t able to do that? I wanted to make sure that I took some time and gave back. I still had intentions to go to Wall Street and make a billion dollars.
Vicki: You realized you had a talent for teaching. Why these particular kids in this particular part of the Valley?
Rachel: The biggest reason is that the achievement gap is so real and so visible here. When I think about the fact that less than 10 percent of this community has graduated from college…this is a dramatic need and I can fill that. It’s not rocket science; it doesn’t take gobs and gobs of money. Just commitment and dedication.
Vicki: Describe some of the challenges you’ve faced.
Rachel: There are a hundred challenges that face any start-up organization—then add on the fact that it’s a school. Upon chartering, you have about five months to get a building, a staff, a student body, every piece of marketing material, a presence. Everything has to happen really fast. Finding a site was incredibly challenging. We’re housed in an old bowling alley that was once a thrift store and is now our school.
Vicki: You had to find parents willing to pull their kids from the local public school and enroll in yours.
Rachel: I had to find 70 families that were going to trust me with their children when I didn’t have a building to show them. I didn’t have a staff. I had myself and my smile and my song. I still wonder if my own family would have done that. It was an amazing leap of faith that those families took.
Vicki: And you don’t look like you’re from the community where you were recruiting.
Rachel: I taught in this community for four years before I started the school. But there’s a lot of fear of someone like me knocking on a door in the middle of a south Phoenix trailer park. So I recruited my former students to help me. I would bring two or three kiddos from the community who speak Spanish fluently, who understand the culture and the community. They’d knock on the door; I’d hang back. The kids would give me a certain nod when it was a winner, and that was how I built that trust.
Vicki: This fall, you’ll enroll 280 students from fifth through eighth grades. Test scores are improving. You’re planning to build a high school. Why does your model seem to be working?
Rachel: There’s nothing standing in the way of our students other than low expectations for them. When you set the expectation that you’re going to do something great, 99 percent of kids live up to that. That is something that keeps me going, especially when I have those days when it gets frustrating. But kids want to do exactly what you believe they can do.
Vicki: What’s the take away, then, for our educational system?
Rachel: Three months off in the summer means I spend an entire quarter remediating. If they have six weeks off in the summer, kids remember pretty much what I taught them. I think if I were to change one thing, and really rock the system, we should accept that we’re not an agrarian society any more. Keep kids in school, get them in sports, get them in music classes, make that part of our curriculum.
Vicki: What have your students taught you?
Rachel: I’ve learned that perseverance can look really different. For many of our kids, what that looks like is they go home, clean up, cook and babysit for siblings, and then when everything quiets down, they sit on their bed with siblings sleeping next to them and do their homework. The fact that that’s the only time and that’s the only space they have to do their work—that’s pretty impressive. And they come to school every day. And they’re happy.
Multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for RAISING ARIZONA KIDS through her own company, Small Change Productions.