PHOENIX (AP) — When Teach for America launched more than two decades ago, the idea was to create a Peace Corps of sorts for low-income schools.
The national non-profit places outstanding college graduates in fields other than education in classrooms.
The idea is to allow some of the nation's best and brightest professionals to spend two years teaching disadvantaged kids before they move on to more prominent careers in law, medicine or business.
But once many Teach for America participants start working with children, they never look back.
"I am not sorry at all I did not become an attorney," said Ivette Rodriguez, who joined Teach for America after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2002.
Her original idea was to attend law school after taking two years off to teach a bilingual first-grade class at John R. Davis School in southwest Phoenix.
But after several months in the classroom, Rodriguez had a different career plan entirely. She now is principal of Cesar Chavez Community School in Phoenix's Roosevelt Elementary School District.
"I truly believe that people should be in the place where they can do the most good. As time went on, I realized that education is that place for me," Rodriguez said.
Nationally, 63 percent of Teach for America participants remain in education jobs after their two years in the classroom.
Another 20 percent or so leave teaching but select careers that allow them to continue to advocate for children and education.
"The alumni movement is integral to our mission as an organization," said Lindsay Wheeler DeFrancisco, executive director of Teach For America in Phoenix.
Phoenix has one of the most robust Teach for America alumni groups in the nation, DeFrancisco said.
More than 600 former participants are active in Phoenix alumni activities — including mentoring new Teach for America participants — and many of them have their own careers in education, she said.
Pearl Chang Esau, who served in Teach for America in Los Angeles starting in 2003, is now president and chief executive officer of Expect More Arizona, a non-profit education-advocacy group.
She also chairs the Arizona Public Engagement Task Force, which is creating an education campaign on the new Arizona Common Core Standards.
Sabrina Vazquez, who served in Teach for America in Phoenix starting in 2008, is now a legislative liaison at Barnes & Associates, an Arizona public-policy consulting company.
Among the organizations the company represents is the Arizona School Administrators Association.
"We need committed leaders at all levels of the education system," DeFrancisco said.
Alumnus Silvio Delgado, for instance, has been teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math at Valley View School in the Roosevelt district for six years.
Delgado had planned to become a clinical psychologist when he was an undergraduate at the University of Florida but changed his mind during a Teach for America stint after graduation.
Strategies he learned during Teach for America trainings shape much of what Delgado does during the school day at Valley View: He believes he is not just there to teach math. He's there to shape and motivate future leaders.
Although Delgado teaches math, students don't get away with misspelled words or sentence fragments when answering word problems.
Delgado's classroom walls are covered with college pennants and biographies of inspirational historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.
Students' desks are organized into groups and named after prominent universities like the University of Notre Dame, the University of Southern California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Delgado even requires his math students to do research about colleges and college majors with catalogs he stores in his classroom.
At the end of the year, students are required to report their findings to the class.
"I just want to get them thinking about college and get used to hearing the names of the schools," he said. "For a lot of my students, this is the first time they have heard of some of the universities."
DeFrancisco said Delgado's classroom is a perfect illustration of Teach for America values.
"The foundation of our philosophy is the 'teaching as leadership' framework, which guides teachers to develop a clear, ambitious vision of success" for students, she said.
Kelly McManus, who served in Teach for America in Philadelphia starting in 2006, is now policy director for a non-profit education organization called Stand for Children Arizona.
Even though she does not work in a classroom, McManus said, her Teach for America experiences inform her work every day.
"Every student has an innate desire to learn," she said. "Sometimes it is buried very, very deep and has been pushed even deeper by circumstances beyond their control, but it is there. Great teachers find it and bring it out."
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com