For the past three years, Princeton University has been home to Catharine Bellinger and Alexis Morin, and their non-profit organization Students for Education Reform. Rather than returning for their senior year, Bellinger and Morin decided to take on running SFER full-time.
The pair formed Students for Education Reform during their sophomore year. While in high school, Bellinger worked at a KIPP charter school in her hometown of Washington D.C. Working there sparked her interest in education reform. When she started at Princeton, Bellinger looked for a club devoted to education reform, but with no luck.
“I didn’t see a group focused on systemic education reform,” she said.
Bellinger reached out to the Princeton community and eventually found a fellow freshman, Morin, who shared her interests. Morin’s interest in education reform came from the time she spent as a representative on her hometown school board. The group is specifically focused on supporting policies that they believe will help close the achievement gap.
By their junior year, Bellinger and Morin decided to go national. They turned SFER into an official non-profit organization and hoped to form 10 chapters across the country. By the end of the year, there were 20 chapters of SFER, with over 1000 participants.
“Recruitment has come easy,” Bellinger said. She explained that college students are the “natural allies” of K-12 students, having just completed that system. SFER currently has over 70 applications from people looking to form a chapter on their campus. For the next year, SFER is focusing its efforts on four states: New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Connecticut.
“We’re basically flooding the states with energized college students,” Bellinger said.
The four states were chosen, in part, based on pending legislation. SFER plans to use its membership base to lobby for reform measures. The legislation varies from state to state, but Bellinger offered Colorado’s recent education reform act as an example of the type of legislation SFER typically endorses.
Colorado Senate Bill 191, passed in May 2010, dramatically overhauled the way teachers in the state were evaluated. Half of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student improvement on standardized testing, the other half is based on a supervisor’s observations of a teacher. The law also makes it easier for teachers to lose tenure status, and in turn for school districts to fire teachers.
“The entire bill tied everything back to students,” Bellinger said.
Claire Goebel, the University of Minnesota Chapter president, described her experience phone banking in support of a reform bill in the spring. Many legislators, she said, expressed surprise that college students were calling their offices and speaking in support of the bill.
SFER is hoping to take that energy and mobilize it into legislative victories across the country.
As for Bellinger and Morin, they do plan on returning to Princeton eventually.
“We can’t be hypocrites,” Bellinger said. As the founders of an organization devoted to increasing college access, they believe receiving their own diplomas is imperative. But they’ll need them for another reason as well, to become teachers.
“We’re dying to teach,” she said, “but right now, we have an incredible opportunity.”
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