Senior chooses inner-city teaching over law school

By Derek Hawkins

Toby Shepherd never envisioned himself becoming a teacher, but this summer he will begin a two-year teaching stint in one of the nation’s poorest school districts.

Shepherd, a senior political science and history major, is a member of Teach For America, a selective nonprofit organization that aims to eliminate the achievement gap between students in public schools. After graduation in June, Shepherd will move to New York City where he and more than 1,000 other Teach For America corps members will work at schools in impoverished communities.

Shepherd said his passion for improving education for children drove him to join the organization.

“I want them to have the same experience I had,” he said. “There’s nothing inherently less intelligent about kids growing up in these low-income communities, but it’s like they’re being restricted by their zip codes.”

Founded in 1990 by a Princeton University graduate, Teach For America’s mission is to end educational inequality among young students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The group enlists qualified college graduates to teach in 25 of the nation’s poorest regions.

While education has never been one of Shepherd’s top career choices, he said it has been one of his biggest concerns.

“I think we expect less from some kids than we do from others,” he said. “I think we need to demand as much as we can from each student. If you set up low expectations they won’t succeed.”

In early 2005 Shepherd put his beliefs into practice, in an unconventional way for someone his age: He ran for public office.

“I’d always wanted to get involved in politics, but do more than just go to protests,” he said. “So I started looking at elected office.”

He said the only problem with his qualifications was that he had none.

But in April 2005 Shepherd ran unopposed for a position on the King Philip Regional School District school board and was elected. He represents Plainville on the nine-member board and goes home every two weeks to attend meetings. He said he has been told he is the youngest board member in Massachusetts.

Shepherd has served on the board’s policy, budget and collective bargaining subcommittees. He has passed two initiatives, including a paper-recycling program. Being an active board member has pushed him closer to a career in politics, and he said he believes Teach For America will also play an important role in that career.

“I want to be a policy-maker eventually,” he said. “I’m going to have to look at what experiences are going to help me make the changes that I want to see. And I’ve got to ask myself what experiences in my life will have an effect on other people’s lives.”

In December Shepherd was accepted to Boston College Law School, but declined because he had already been admitted to Teach For America.

Foregoing a degree from New England’s fourth-ranked law school was a minor sacrifice, he said.

“I don’t think [Teach For America] will hold me back in any way,” he said. “One of their real successes is that they take all the other obstacles out of the way. It’s something that you can do for two years and no one will be mad at you when you quit. You carry your work with you long afterward.”

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