Compelled to teach in the inner-city, she drives more than 100 miles round trip each day to teach science at KAPPA 5, a public school for Grades 6–8 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

by Cecil Harris 

Irene PizzoIrene Pizzo knew she didn’t have a typical teaching job when, after a holiday break, she returned to the classroom only to hear her students exclaim, “You came back! None of the other science teachers came back!”

Since 2009, Pizzo has taught biology, chemistry and physical science at Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy (a.k.a. KAPPA 5), a public school for Grades 6–8 in Brownsville, a hardscrabble neighborhood in Brooklyn. How hardscrabble? One student told Pizzo she was happy that her family would be moving to a fifth-floor apartment in the same building. Why? “We won’t have bullets going through our windows anymore,” the student said.

Building the self-esteem of her students is as fundamental to Pizzo’s job as teaching them science. “So many of us who graduate from Adelphi come from the suburbs and we don’t know what it’s like to be a kid from the inner city,” said Pizzo, who lives on Long Island, in the town of Centereach. “You need to learn from them to be able to teach them.”

Pizzo, who is married and the mother of four, had planned to attend medical school after graduating from Adelphi. Her plans changed after she worked one summer as a volunteer tutor for disadvantaged kids in Hempstead, New York. The satisfaction from helping students master a subject they once considered too difficult and seeing their confidence grow convinced her to become a teacher. She enrolled in Adelphi’s Scholar Teacher Education Program (S.T.E.P.), which allows a candidate to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years while gaining invaluable experience as a student-teacher.

After an internship in the Bellmore-Merrick school district on Long Island, Pizzo taught at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School, a highly regarded school in West Islip, New York. But the desire to teach inner-city kids proved stronger. She drives more than 100 miles round trip each day to teach at KAPPA 5.

In the 2013–2014 academic year, Pizzo helped organize trips for KAPPA 5 students to visit Georgetown University and Yale University. “Many of the kids we took to Georgetown and Yale had never left Brownsville before,” she said. “We’ve taken them snow tubing in the Poconos, and next year we want to take them to a farm. You have to expose these kids to as many different experiences as possible.”

While teaching inner-city kids has been a joy for Pizzo, she finds it frustrating to have to explain to her students why a better-funded charter school in the same building gets new desks and chairs when KAPPA 5 does not. And some of the charter school teachers, assuming the worst about KAPPA 5, have told their students, ‘Don’t be like those kids.’ Pizzo, however, believes in “those kids” and tells them, “You are not just passing through school. You are going to college.”

This piece appeared in AU VU, Fall 2014 issue.

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