Teach For America South Carolina 2016
English Teacher, Lowcountry Acceleration Academy
Bria Burke-Koskela’s placement by Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC) came with a twist.
A number of Teach For America teachers grew up in big cities and were assigned to teach in rural communities. Instead, Burke-Koskela landed in a school just 45 minutes from her South Carolina hometown of Summerville.
“I came to Colleton County High School in Walterboro by happy circumstance,” she said. “It felt like home but a different experience of home at the same time.”
That experience changed her life.
Freshly graduated from Clemson University and not in love with the notion of starting law school, Burke-Koskela taught at Colleton County High School for five years – three years beyond her initial commitment with TFASC. She then continued in education, joining a path-breaking public charter high school in North Charleston, even closer to home.
“To have stayed five years is a testament to the culture and students at Colleton County High School,” said Burke-Koskela. “Freshmen coming into my English classes told me, ‘You can’t leave until I graduate.’ I told them if I heard that from every incoming freshman class, I’d be here until I’m 85 years old.”
TFASC’s training and support prepared Burke-Koskela for exciting work in a new kind of school. Lowcountry Acceleration Academy is a tuition-free high school for young adults who have not experienced success in traditional classroom settings.
“We give our students, many already in their 20s, a way to earn high school diplomas as they learn at their own pace,” she said. “They take one class at a time, come in year-round as early as 8 a.m. and leave as late as 6 p.m., work online, and always get one-on-one tutoring.”
As she advances the prospects for her at-risk students, Burke-Koskela advances her own education. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Boston College’s Educational Leadership and Policy program.
The most encouraging thing in South Carolina’s education system, according to Burke-Koskela, is the potential she sees in her students as well as students in traditional schools.
“If we can tap into that potential a little more, we’ll be much better off,” she said. “What has made TFASC and Lowcountry Acceleration Academy so amazing is that these models ask us, as educators, to see students as more than vessels to fill with information. Instead, we see them as fellow individuals with something to contribute.”
One way to help all students would be to “reframe what knowledge is and how it’s delivered.”
“We can investigate curriculum and the current structure of a school setting,” she said. “At my job now, I’m not standing up in front of 30 people supposedly filling them with knowledge. I sit down with them and have a discussion, one person to another, and that’s where learning starts.”
TFASC played a key role in reframing notions of knowledge and teaching.
“People ask me how I can be a political science major and now be teaching English,” she said. “But that’s the whole point.”
“TFASC allows committed people with diverse and broad life experiences to come in and affect the education system,” added Burke-Koskela. “It refreshes things. We don’t just have to do things the way they’ve always been done.”