Birmingham to Beijing sends inner-city high school students in Birmingham, Ala., on a study abroad in Beijing – if they first learn Chinese.
It's 7 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and Wyatt Smith is still in his classroom. The day started 12 hours ago, back when his green tie was firmly in place and his khakis were neatly pressed – before the classes, parent phone calls, and the three-hour Mandarin lesson for 13 inner-city students at George Washington Carver High School in Birmingham, Ala.
For this teacher, long hours are just part of the job description.
"The students I teach haven't had a lot of cards fall their way," says Mr. Smith while grading a stack of papers in his third-floor classroom. "Through no fault of their own, they're in situations in which the margin for error is zero. For many of them, the prospects of going to college, getting through college, and becoming part of the workforce as a professional are incredibly slim."
For the past two years, Smith has been working tirelessly to increase those odds. He came to Carver High School as part of the Teach For America program, a nonprofit effort to place highly ambitious recent college graduates in the nation's most underprivileged schools.
Though he also serves as Carver High School's ACT Test coach, student government adviser, and debate team supervisor, Smith's efforts have focused on a project he calls Birmingham to Beijing, a program geared to fully immerse his inner-city students in Chinese language and culture.
Last year, Smith's program raised $45,000 in just six weeks and sent seven Carver students on a one-month immersion trip to Beijing's Jiayu School. An experience like that, he says, will help his students stand out when they apply for college.
This year, Smith is at it again, but he's raised the stakes: In order to earn a spot on the coveted 17-hour flight, students must pass a college-level exam proving their proficiency in the most common Chinese dialect, Mandarin. To prepare them for the test, Smith raised funds to pay for a Mandarin professor from The University of Alabama at Birmingham to lead two after-school seminars a week. (Smith's 13 Mandarin language students are the only students in Birmingham City Schools studying Chinese.)
Smith first approached Carver principal Darnell Hudson with the proposal to create a Chinese language program, complete with a fully funded trip abroad last spring.
"I had my doubts at first," Mr. Hudson says. His desk is stacked high with papers, and he's ignoring a phone ringing behind him. "I wondered, 'How am I going to explain this to the parents?' It's not every day that someone comes over and says they want to take kids all the way across the world."
In fact, in Hudson's 13 years as principal, no teacher had ever made such a request. Public high schools such as Carver struggle just to meet the basic academic needs of students. Financing international travel seemed to be a pipe dream.
Carver draws its 900 students from Birmingham's lowest-income neighborhoods, where single-parent households, crime, and violence are the norm, Hudson says.
How to set a high bar in a place where life expectations are low is a challenge.
"There are a lot of obstacles when you're trying to change the culture," Hudson says. "But Wyatt is passionate, committed, and he rides the students hard. He won't let them fail."
That determination is something Smith has cultivated since childhood. He grew up a few hundred miles from here on a farm in rural Alabama, where during his high school summers he'd run from football practice to tend cattle on his father's understaffed farm and back to football practice again. "The experience definitely taught me how to work more than typical hours," he says with a laugh. "My dad taught me to never stop working until the goal is met."
A public service scholarship helped Smith finance his way through Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Upon graduation in 2010, he was awarded Vanderbilt's Keegan Traveling Fellowship, which supplied him with a one-year grant of $15,000 to travel the world.
While on his month-long leg in China, Smith befriended the Jiayu School in Beijing and the nonprofit Global China Connection, and he began thinking about how he might use those contacts to benefit students in America.
"These [Carver] students are hardworking, and naturally intelligent and naturally curious, and all the characteristics that make for a good student in most school environments. But despite those things, they still have a long shot," Smith says with a hint of regret. "And it's not right. I believe they deserve opportunity, and I began to believe I had the skill set and connections to be able to facilitate it."
Thus began a partnership that has significantly changed the lives of Smith's students. Last February, after a few phone calls to friends in Beijing to plan for his students' participation in a Global China Connection conference, Smith launched an online campaign at Indiegogo.com, an Internet-based fundraising site, that generated $45,000 in a matter of six weeks.
His seven students vigorously wrote thank-you notes, recorded videos to send to sponsors, and began planning the itinerary for their trip, which included a stop at the Great Wall.
"I got on a plane, and my world changed," says DeAnquinetta Gill, a 17-year-old senior who traveled with Smith to Beijing last year. She lives with her mother and seven siblings, and stays at school until 6:30 p.m. twice a week to study Mandarin. She hopes to become a pediatrician – a revelation she had while working with orphans in China.
"Mr. Smith has been such a big help in my life," she says. "He came in and has been like a father to me, and showed me that he trusts me, and believes in me. He's really made me a stronger individual."
Parents also have seen the changes that Smith's commitment to his students has made.
"Mr. Smith is phenomenal," says Jameka Serrano, mother of one of Smith's current Mandarin students. "He has the heart, and from what I see, he's doing what's best for these kids.
"I prayed, and I asked God to put certain people in our life for my daughter. I wanted her to be surrounded by someone like Mr. Smith."
Now, more students might have the opportunity to learn from passionate, determined teachers who think outside the walls of Carver High School. Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Craig Witherspoon says that Smith's model is "replicable," and principal Hudson adds that Smith's example has "sparked other teachers to do a little bit more than just what's required of them."
Following the trail blazed by Smith, more Carver faculty have begun to approach Hudson with ideas for how to raise funds and plan opportunities for their students to see the world outside Birmingham. Trips by Carver students to France and Spain may be coming in the near future.
As for a second trip to Beijing, it's contingent on the students' commitment to studying for the Chinese proficiency test, Smith says.
"The commitment I made for the kids is that if they achieved basic proficiency [in Chinese], then we would figure out a way for them to have an opportunity to study abroad," Smith says. "Every one of these students is very driven. There are some who need to build better study skills, but there's no one there against their will."
If all 13 students achieve proficiency, Smith says he'll need to raise nearly $50,000.
This year, Smith plans to focus on garnering corporate support rather than relying solely on individual donations. Like all the other obstacles he's faced as a teacher, the financial hurdle doesn't scare him.
"I'm cognitively aware that it's a lot of money to raise," Smith says, finally packing the last of his ungraded papers in a leather satchel. "But it's worth all the effort to make this work for these students, because every child who works hard and is disciplined deserves a shot."
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