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Profiles: Hilary Bernstein '02

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Hilary Bernstein '02
First Grade Teacher, Achievement First

As her Bowdoin graduation approached, Hilary Bernstein ’02 watched many of her peers apply to various graduate schools in a whirlwind of standardized tests and personal statements. Surrounded by so many students driving toward highpaying, professional careers, Hilary admits, “I felt like I was supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer.” Nevertheless, she decided to join Teach for America, and, luckily for hundreds of students, never looked back. “Right now, I cannot imagine pursuing anything else.”

After just a few weeks teaching in a Bronx public school, Hilary realized her passion for education.“I began to understand that teaching is one of the most challenging and gratifying careers in the world,” she says.The challenge came from working in an under-resourced school teaching third grade students who were reading at a first grade level. Although she credits Teach for America with providing “incredible support” to schools in poorer areas of the city, Hilary says, “It felt like there was only so much that I could accomplish with my students, within the confines of the public school system.”

In her current job at Achievement First, a college preparatory charter school for urban students in Brooklyn, many of Hilary’s challenges remain the same. Most of the students in her first grade class are living in poverty, some commute to school from homeless shelters or are victims of domestic abuse, and all are in desperate need of emotional and educational support. Despite teaching an extended school day and a lengthened academic year, Hilary says “there never seems to be quite enough time to reach [every student], and it can be absolutely exhausting.”

The level of commitment at Hilary’s school has proven extremely effective closing the achievement gap, with over 85 percent of students reading at or above grade level by the close of the 2005 academic year. “Within the large organization of the Department of Education, it sometimes [felt] like the battle [was] too big, the problems too systematic and vast…at Achievement First, it feels like we can really tip the scale for urban students,” said Hilary. “I love the idea that my current school is really making it happen.”

In keeping with the school’s tradition, Hilary’s classroom at Achievement First is named after her alma mater, an appropriate tribute to the institution that inspired her decision to teach.“More than any specific class or professor, the whole Bowdoin experience influenced my decision…I realized that I had been amazingly privileged…[and] that many children across the country do not have access to the same educational opportunities.”Through her work at Achievement First, Hilary hopes to make attending college a realistic possibility for her students. “It would be my ultimate goal for my first graders to one day attend Bowdoin.”

Posted February 01, 2007