MISSION – Michelle Verrochi was on the path to medical school when she graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience.

That was three years ago.

Now Verrochi, originally from New Hampshire, is finishing her third year as a high school teacher at the 555-student Todd County High School on the Rosebud reservation. The graduation rate is 51 percent, 49 percent of county residents are below the poverty level, and the nearest Walmart is nearly three hours away.

“I felt like my entire path was me going to medical school. I was really focused on that. So my senior year of college I started to think, do I really want to do this?” she said.

Lara Heiberger had a similar epiphany last year, when she was a senior math major at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.

“I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk. I wasn’t ready to go to grad school,” the 23-year-old said. “I wanted to do something where I felt like I wasn’t just taking – where I could have immediate gratification that I could do something good.”

Heiberger and Verrochi both found a solution in Teach for America, a selective program that recruits college graduates and young professionals to teach for two years at low-income schools. Teach for America has 57 teachers working in schools near the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations and 5,100 teachers nationwide.

A bill Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed Monday allocates $250,000 from the state education budget for the first time to expand the program in South Dakota. With private matching funds, Teach for America plans to nearly double the number of teachers in South Dakota to 100 by 2015 and expand the program to the Cheyenne River, Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations. Teach for America teachers in South Dakota make between $27,000 and $31,000 annually, according to its website.

Jim Curran, the executive director of Teach for America for South Dakota, is committed to closing the achievement gap — the difference in graduation rates between low-income schools and their better-off peers. Todd County has a 49 percent graduation rate, Shannon County on the Pine Ridge reservation has a 7 percent graduation rate and Rapid City schools have an 82 percent graduation rate, according to the South Dakota Department of Education.

“It’s easy to look at these numbers and get down, but that’s another thing our students struggle with — they struggle with hopelessness,” Curran said. “We need hope, and we need optimism.”

Verrochi is cheerfully working to combat the poor graduation rate. In her classroom on Tuesday, five students leaned forward intently as they rolled blue clay into long, snakelike small intestines to add to the digestive systems of model skeletons on the table in front of them.

“Make sure you attach your large intestine to your small intestine!” Verrochi, 25, reminded the “Human Body Systems” students as she circled the room. “Don’t leave it hanging.”

Tanner Colombe, 16, is a student in Verrochi’s Human Body Systems class. He has had half a dozen Teach for America teachers in his high school career.

“TFAs are usually more gung ho,” he said. “They relate to you because they’re a bit younger, so it’s easier to get along with them. And they have pretty interesting classes, because they’re upbeat.”

The Human Body Systems class is an advanced elective and most of the students in Tuesday’s class were juniors. Through a national program the school just started offering, students who score well on an end-of-semester assessment earn up to three credits they can transfer to participating colleges.

The first year in Mission was tough, Verrochi admitted. The brown-eyed, curly-haired teacher had just graduated and was juggling new responsibilities and a foreign environment. But watching her students use knowledge from her classes to teach others kept her coming back. Many of them want to work on the reservation as doctors, she said.

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“It was a ton of work, but to see how it impacts the kids was the biggest driving force for me,” she said. “I think that grows every year.”

Verrochi is now considering studying public health, but will stick around at Todd County High School for at least one more year.

Some have criticized Teach for America as taking jobs from local teachers, but Peg Diekhoff, assistant principal at Todd County High School, said that is not the case. The school hires every applicant it can from Sinte Gleska University, the tribal college in Mission, and there still are open jobs and high turnover rates in Todd County schools.

“One of the issues we have is just trying to fill all of our job openings,” she said. “Teach for America really gave us a viable option.”

Wizipan Garriott, who grew up on the Rosebud reservation, worked with Teach for America teachers when he was chief of staff to the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. He recently returned to Rosebud to work with the tribal government and occasionally speaks with Rosebud’s Teach for America members, he said.

“These are people who are smart enough to go into other fields and to do other things. … They don’t have to come to the second-poorest county in the United States or a poor inner-city area and work for very little money in a challenging work environment,” he said. “They do it because they’re committed.”

Contact Ruth Moon at 394-8415 or ruth.moon@rapidcityjournal.com.

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