When Mackenzie Jones graduated from George Washington University with a degree in international relations and affairs, she knew she wanted to work in a field that affected the education of young people. That passion led her more than 1,000 miles south to serve as a middle-school teacher in Louisiana’s Pointe Coupee Parish.
The unusual connection was made through the nonprofit Teach For America (TFA), which recruits college graduates to serve as teachers. TFA’s “corps members" commit to teaching for at least two years in a public or public charter K–12 school in one of 52 low-income communities.
Jones had volunteered in schools in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., but wasn’t sure what to expect when she began teaching. She says her experience in South Louisiana has had a “profound” impact on her — and she has made a similar impact on her students, garnering awards for her work and boosting test scores.
“I have learned so much about myself through this experience and been pushed constantly to be a better teacher and person,” she says. “I think my greatest lesson learned is that our youth are incredibly powerful, and forgiving, and we must invest in them because they have the greatness to make our future incredible.”
TFA’s South Louisiana chapter has made thousands of stories like this possible over the past 26 years. Community Coffee Company has been a strong supporter of TFA’s mission and its positive impacts for nearly two decades, backing the organization through annual grants and welcoming new corps members each year. Community Coffee’s most recent multi-year grant to the group, supports TFA’s mission in greater Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Mississippi and Arkansas.
More than 42,000 corps members have completed their commitment to the organization since TFA was established in 1990, collectively teaching more than 5 million students in the U.S.
TFA South Louisiana was among six founding chapters, and it continues to support 70 corps members in schools throughout the region. Another 250 alumni remain in the area.
“Where Community Coffee is granting Teach for America there is a very high need for high-quality teachers,” says Laura Vinsant, executive director of TFA South Louisiana. “We have found that given who we select and given the training that Teach for America provides, they are able to achieve great results with students who are typically a few grade levels behind.”
Matt Saurage, Community Coffee’s fourth-generation owner, and the Community Coffee family have been strong supporters of TFA since the program’s early days, personally welcoming new teachers to the area and offering other hands-on support.
Saurage recently visited Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter School in Baton Rouge during its Teach For America Week. He spoke to eighth-graders about supply and demand, providing real-world examples from the coffee industry.
“More so than a lot of funding partners, Community Coffee is really involved with our teachers,” Vinsant says.
Community Coffee’s backing for TFA has grown beyond Baton Rouge to support the organization’s work in Arkansas, Mississippi and New Orleans. “Their granting has expanded to make sure those regions are able to recruit, select and then support teachers in low-income communities as well,” Vinsant says. “This money goes directly toward ensuring we have a pipeline of those teachers who initially come with a two-year commitment. We’ve seen them over time actually become a large part of our community.”
Teacher of the Year
One of those who has had a clear community impact in recent years is Jones, who has been teaching reading, English/language arts and world history to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Upper Pointe Coupee Elementary School. Her work earned her the 2016 Middle School District Teacher of the Year award in Pointe Coupee Parish. Last year her students achieved the highest academic growth in the parish, improving more than any class at the school in the past six years. She credits the students.
“In my first year of teaching students were able to accomplish that for themselves,” Jones says. “I didn’t always have the best lessons or behavior management, but they believed in themselves because they knew I believed in them.”
Jones says if she had to make the choice again, she would still pick the Baton Rouge area for her teaching assignment.
“Coming to Baton Rouge has brought me so many new experiences,” she says. “I’ve met so many amazing people working to provide quality opportunities and educations for all people in Baton Rouge. Working to address the inequities that exist for my kids and all kids is one of the best things I could be doing right now.”