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Career Change

In a few short weeks, Jodee Scott went from billing $200 an hour as an Ashland attorney to nearly getting beaned by an eraser in one of the worst schools in the nation.

She had signed up to Teach For America and was teaching science and social studies to fourth through sixth graders in the middle of Mississippi last fall. The school was incredibly poor, lacking even science textbooks, and her students were more likely to go to prison than college, she said.

"I went in thinking, the students will be so thankful that I'm here and listen to me," said Scott, 34. "That's what I was used to, because being an attorney, where people are paying you by the hour, of course they're going to listen because they want you to stop talking. But students don't care about that."

It was a long way from Ashland and far from the familiar Jackson County Courthouse. But Scott, a former Medford resident, was determined to give her students the same opportunities she had given her volleyball team at Ashland High School and her clients at Davis Hearn Saladoff & Bridges.

"We have a huge discrepancy, not just in Mississippi, but other places as well, between students in poverty and students that aren't," she said. "There's a big difference in the quality of education received."

In her last six months at the law firm, where she specialized in property litigation, she had become a partner, but she still felt disappointed by her career.

"I loved the firm, but I just wasn't getting as much meaning out of the work as I thought I would, and I realized I wanted to work with kids," Scott said.

Through coaching Ashland High School's volleyball team, she learned she loved working with students, on and off the court. After a bit of Web research, she came across Teach for America and applied for the prestigious program.

Participants commit to teaching in a low-performing school from a number of select U.S. locations for two years. In return, they're given training, a beginning teacher's salary and experience in the profession. The program is highly selective and accepted only 11 percent of applicants in 2011. Applicants include college seniors, including 12 percent from Ivy League schools, as well as professionals looking for a career change.

Scott learned she had been accepted in April 2010, and by June she was teaching summer school in Mississippi and taking teacher training courses to obtain an alternative license.

That fall she began a regular teaching assignment at Williams Sullivan Elementary School, where she created her own science "textbook" because the school couldn't afford any.

"I believe that every child can learn, no matter what their economic status is," Scott said. "They want to succeed and they want to feel smart — everybody does."

The school is in Durant, Miss., a rural town of about 3,000 people. The closest movie theater is an hour away.

Williams is one of the lowest-performing schools in Mississippi, a state with an education program that is frequently ranked as worst in the nation, Scott said. About 99 percent of students at the school are living below the federal poverty level, she said.

Teaching in rural Mississippi opened Scott's eyes to the racism that still exists in the country, she said. All of the students at her school are black, whereas the private schools are full of white students, Scott said.

"I've learned that racism is still a problem in our nation," she said. "I see a lot of segregation here."

Scott has started a volleyball team at Williams Sullivan High School, after she used her legal background to convince administrators that the school was in violation of Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to have equal opportunities for girls and boys. The high school had three sports programs for boys, but only one for girls

"They said, 'Well, girls can try out for the football team,' and I said, 'I was trained as a lawyer and I'm pretty sure that's not the way Title IX is supposed to work.' So they let me start a volleyball team."

Scott returned to Medford this month to visit her parents, but she's now back in Durant, preparing to serve as a reading intervention teacher for kindergarten through eighth grade in the fall. After her Teach contract is up, she plans to continue teaching in low-performing schools and become a school administrator.

She hopes to eventually use her legal background to lobby in Washington, D.C., for better education policies.

But for the next year she's going to focus on eliminating flying erasers in her classroom and teaching her students to read.

Last year she realized that the reason a student kept disrupting her sixth-grade class was because he didn't want to be called on to read out loud — because he read at only a first-grade level. After class, she met with him and made a deal: She wouldn't call on him in class if he agreed to meet with her every day for reading lessons.

The student's reading skills drastically improved and his behavior problems largely stopped.

"By the end of the school year, one of my biggest challenges and disruptions had turned into one of my biggest successes," Scott said. "That's why I'm doing this."

Reach reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-776-4459 or email hguzik@mailtribune.com.