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Gift to Stanford Teacher Education Program frees its graduates from debt

Judy Avery is thanked by a STEP student. (Photo: Marc Franklin)
Judy Avery is thanked by a STEP student. (Photo: Marc Franklin)
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Gift to Stanford Teacher Education Program frees its graduates from debt

Students and alumni thank Judy Avery for establishing the forgivable loan program that has enabled them to pursue teaching careers.

“Prove it to me."

Nancy Ku kept repeating this challenge to her geometry class each time a student tried to demonstrate how to solve the problem. The lesson was about congruent triangles, and Ku, a student in the Stanford Teacher Education Program, patiently probed each student’s logic.

Standing alongside a wall in the classroom, a small group of visitors were both anxious and captivated. "It'd be so easy as the teacher to jump right in and just give the answer,” one of the guests, Judy Avery (Stanford ’59), said a little later. But such assistance would not have been welcome: Ku was teaching the students to think for themselves.

By the end of the morning Avery and her group had watched similar scenes in two additional classes at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, Calif. She had observed not only Ku, but also two graduates of the Stanford program, known as STEP.

"It's just amazing, really, how the teachers let the students do the thinking," Avery said. "I'm in awe of them and what they do."

The feeling is more than mutual; these teachers consider Avery to be the amazing one. When she met them later, over lunch, they thanked her. After all, it is Avery’s support that made it possible for them —and hundreds of other STEP students over the past decade — to commit to mastering teaching and to advancing the teaching profession.

Nearly nine years ago, Avery arranged for a $10 million gift to the Stanford Graduate School of Education that established the Dorothy Durfee Avery Loan Forgiveness Program, named for her mother, a former public school teacher. Matched by Stanford, the loan program provides generous financial aid to STEP students to help offset tuition and living expenses, substantially reducing the debt they could otherwise be saddled with. More significantly, recipients become eligible to have their loan forgiven after four years teaching in U.S. public schools, or private schools serving predominantly low-income students.

Such a commitment to teaching runs counter to current trends. Over the last decade the number of students enrolled in California’s teacher preparation programs has dropped by 74 percent — from 77,000 to 20,000. Nationally roughly half of teachers leave the profession within five years.

By contrast, STEP has seen no decline in the number of applications and its enrollment. About 80 percent of its graduates continue as teachers when they pass the five-year mark.

"The Loan Forgiveness Program has allowed us to bring in talented future teachers," said Ira Lit, director of the STEP elementary program. "It was both humble and wise of Judy to recognize the burden of long-term debt and how that can deter people from the profession."

Providing Opportunity

Since its inception in 2006, more than 500 Avery loans have been offered to STEP students. This year, the Avery loan was offered to 73 STEP students — about 85 percent of the total class. The average size of the loan is nearly $20,000.

"It definitely wouldn't have been possible for me to attend Stanford without it," said Ernesto Hernandez, a STEP student from San Jose whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico.

Hernandez, who is the first in his family to go to college, said one of his goals as a teacher is to help kids with similar backgrounds to his own succeed. "The Avery loan has given me this opportunity," he said. Next year, he plans to teach at Luis Valdez Leadership Academy in East San Jose, a school focused on serving kids who have been historically marginalized.

Helen Weldeghiorgis, a STEP student from the San Diego area, said she also planned to make her career in an underserved school, "the kind I grew up going to."

"If there's some small way that I can give back, I will," she said. "And this loan has gotten me on that path. It enables me to go to a program that wouldn't have been financially viable otherwise and hopefully bring all that I learn back to where I came from."

STEP strives to prepare its graduates to teach in diverse schools and communities. The 12-month-long program helps teaching candidates to become more aware of the strengths and needs of a diverse student population; they learn how to teach subject matter while encouraging inquiry, critical thinking and problem solving. In addition to courses, every STEP student has a yearlong school placement, in which he or she takes charge of lessons and a classroom under the guidance of a veteran teacher and a STEP supervisor.

Lit noted that the Avery loan, along with other financial aid from Stanford and the U.S. Department of Education, has helped STEP to recruit a diverse, talented and accomplished group of students from a variety of backgrounds. More than half of this year's class, for example, describe themselves as students of color and several were first generation college students. Fourteen percent already had advanced degrees and many graduated from highly selective undergraduate programs including Stanford, Cornell, UCLA, UC Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania and others.

"I was a Stanford undergrad, and I love Stanford," said Allison Stafford, a biology teacher at Sequoia and Avery loan recipient. "But I don't think I would've stayed if I was expecting to have all that debt."

Committed to Teaching

Avery herself has not been a teacher but her connection to the profession runs deep. In addition to her mother, her maternal grandparents were also educators. Her grandfather, Ulysses Grant Durfee, who graduated from Stanford in 1899, was assistant superintendent of Los Angeles County schools for many years, and her grandmother, Abbie Birch Durfee, Stanford 1900, served as a teacher and principal. An aunt and uncle were also teachers, as was her cousin Jerry Durfee, who joined her at the Sequoia tour. A grandson is now considering becoming a teacher.

Giving to help teachers was very natural for Avery. "Teaching is a priority," she said. “I have so much respect for the profession.”

Part of structuring the loan program was to motivate new teachers to stay in the profession.  Surveys show that teachers who stay with teaching for four years, taking advantage of the type of mentoring Stanford provides, are much more likely to make it a lifetime profession.

"STEP produces teachers that stay," said Jessica Magallanes, an Avery loan recipient and a science teacher at Sequoia for two years. Magallanes, who learned English as a second language and now teaches English learners, said the loan offers freedom —the ability to take a step back from teaching over the summer, for example, and get re-energized. Because of her ability to take a break and because of the importance placed by STEP on learning how to be successful in teaching, she predicted she would have staying power in the profession.

"I feel so lucky to have your support," she told Avery over lunch at Sequoia.

Another goal of the Avery Forgivable Loan Program was that it would inspire others to give.

In December, the GSE announced a new gift by long-term Stanford benefactors to create the Stanford Teaching Fellows program, which will underwrite the full cost of tuition for up to five teacher candidates in STEP each year.  

Peter Williamson, director of STEP's secondary program, said both the Loan and Fellowship Programs show Stanford's commitment to elevating the stature of the teaching profession and making sure a career in teaching is not limited by one’s resources.

Emily DeVoe, who is now in her fifth year teaching English at Sequoia, said teachers can feel a lack of respect from critics, attributing declining interest in the profession to low prestige and salaries. But, DeVoe challenges that description, saying that every time she doesn't have to make a loan payment and instead gets to focus her resources on her professional development or mental well-being, she's hearing the opposite message.

"That's something Stanford and the Avery Forgivable Loan Program communicated very clearly to me," she said. "You are important. Teaching is important."

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