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August 04, 2015

PBA Alum Takes Faith In Education to Atlanta's Inner-City

July 8, 2011
    From left to right: Dr. Gary Poe, Dr. Francisco Plaza, Joseph Yurchak, Dr. Jack Calhoun, Dr. Tom St. Antoine in Sachs Hall.

It’s tough going sometimes. Reaching kids who are affected by their parents’ struggle to give them the basic necessities of life. Kids who have not had access to quality education. Kids who are hurting. Kids who are angry. But working to ensure such kids receive a valuable education is all worth it, says Palm Beach Atlantic University alumnus Joseph Yurchak.

Yurchak is a fifth grade writing and English Language Arts teacher at Ed S. Cook Elementary School in downtown Atlanta through Teach For America. A nonprofit organization, Teach For America recruits talented future leaders to teach for two or more years in low-income communities in the U.S., with the goal of eradicating inequality in education.  A few weeks after graduation, in May 2010, Yurchak moved to Atlanta to begin his two-year commitment.

“The average aptitude for a reading group at my school is about a year behind their current grade level,” Yurchak explains.

On Thursday, PBA Interim President William M.B. Fleming Jr. and Assistant Director of Alumni Relations Breanne Fairfax (’10 COM) hosted a visit with Yurchak and PBA professors he has been corresponding with: John Calhoun, professor of history and political science, Gary Poe, associate professor of history, Francisco Plaza, assistant professor of political science and Tom St. Antoine, associate professor of communication and director of the Frederick M. Supper Honors Program.

“I am a huge proponent of PBA’s Honors Program,” said Yurchak, a Lakeland, Fla. native and former member of the Sailfish men’s soccer team. “Two weeks into my sophomore year, Professor Poe encouraged me to become a part of it.”

“He was the kind of student who had the interest and drive, so it was clear,” said Poe.

His drive as a political science major earned him a Superior Academic Achievement Award for having a 4.0 GPA, and induction into Chi Alpha Sigma (the National College Athlete Honor Society), both during his final semester. As a student, he tutored young people in Belle Glade, Fla. for a year. He also participated in mission trips overseas to Jamaica and to Brazil, where he worked with New Hope International Ministries, an organization founded by PBA alumnus Edson Souza (’91/’92 MBA).

Now a teacher with Teach For America, Yurchak is utilizing the experience he gained at PBA to promote equality in education, recognizing that education is an essential factor in young people being able to break out of a cycle of poverty. Still, the majority of his students struggle to succeed because of negative environmental influences and major flaws that plague inner-city public school systems, he said.

As part of a project to capture alumni reflections on PBA, Yurchak completes and interview with University media services.      

“I had a student named Sanquavius.  He had a really bad temper, but very bright,” said Yurchak. “No one recognized him as smart."

“I once asked him if he knew who FDR was. He knew of him and information associated with him like the New Deal … (but) Sanquavius’ behavior was defensive because of his environment. I worked with his mom a lot, and tried to get him into a charter school.”

Toward the end of the school year, Sanquavius’ mother was no longer able to pay her rent.  His family had to move and his school district changed.

“He left school the day before the state writing test. He was one of my top writers,” Yurchak said.  “I still call him to check on him and see how he’s doing.”

Through working with Teach For America, Yurchak and his peers are seeking solutions amidst the challenges in the public school system.

“We applied to the federal government for a grant of $1 million over three years to fund an afterschool program,” he said. They expect to receive an answer in mid-July.

In order to serve his students well, Yurchak has learned it’s important to take advice from veteran teachers at his school.  He created good working relationships with the chairpersons of the second grade and fifth grade by approaching them with a sense of humility, and by proving his desire to work hard, he said – noting that his efforts are being recognized with his appointment as fifth grade chairperson for the 2011-12 school year.

Teach For America provides a great opportunity for anyone who seeks to work with young people in inner-city public schools, he said; and in the upcoming school year, he may be sent to PBA as a liaison for the organization.

Yurchak is excited about the opportunity to maintain close ties to PBA.

“I feel like my mindset and philosophy were so greatly influenced by PBA, I couldn’t imagine not keeping in contact or being involved,” he said.

“Teach For America is another layer to the PBA experience of service learning, and vocation as a calling,” added President Fleming.

07/2011General News


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