Path leads HHS grad to teaching stint in New York City

Adam Driggers was home for the holiday break last week, but he?s come a long way since he left Hillsboro in fall 2002 to begin college at the University of Kansas.

The Hillsboro High School grad left for Lawrence with the intent of pursuing an art-related degree?and he accomplished that, earning a bachelor?s degree in the area of expanded media in 2007.

So it seems somewhat surprising that Driggers is now halfway through his fourth year as a special-education teacher in the Manhattan borough of New York City.

How did that happen?

?In 2006, when I was a fifth-year senior at KU, I applied for Teach For America, which is a program that puts college graduates from any program into high-risk classrooms,? Driggers said.

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The goal of the non-profit organization is ?to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation?s most promising future leaders in the effort.?

Driggers could have asked to be placed in a variety of settings, either rural or urban. But a six-month stay in Edenborough, Scotland, during his college career, whetted his appetite for a metropolitan experience.

?It?s not a big city, probably the population of Wichita,? Driggers said of Edenborough. ?But it?s very compact, so it has that kind of metropolitan-vibe. I liked that, and I think that?s what I wanted when I was looking for my career after school.?

In January 2007, Driggers was accepted by TFA. After graduating from KU in May, he left for New York City in June to begin a week-long training session with former TFA teachers on the campus of St. John?s University in Queens.

Placed in Manhattan

Driggers said he had hoped to be placed in a school in Brooklyn because ?that?s where most of the young people move to when they move to New York.?

When that didn?t work out, TFA helped him secure a position at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan.

WHEELS is a product of Mayor Michael Bloomberg?s education initiative to break up New York City?s mega-large schools into smaller ones, Driggers said.

?Our school was created in 2006,? he said. ?There was a massive middle school that they split into three different schools, our school being one of them.?

Driggers started as a special education teacher for sixth- and seventh-graders in the area of math. Each year, WHEELS has added one grade and will have sixth- through 12th-grade with the start of the 2011-12 school year. This year?s enrollment is 512.

TFA trains its volunteers to teach in high-risk settings and provides support throughout the two-year commitment to the program. Even so, Driggers admitted his exposure to teaching was challenging.

?The first experience in the classroom was stressful, it was nerve-racking,? he said. ?I had kids that were rough kids from the inner city. They obviously had gang affiliations. They were (in special ed) for various reasons. Mostly they just had not passed a test?sometimes because they didn?t come to school, sometimes because they had special needs or sometimes they just didn?t care.?

The most challenging part, though, was lesson planning.

?I was supposed to be teaching literacy, so we would teach literacy to a group of kids in two 40-minute blocks,? Driggers said.

?So you had to do a 40-minute lesson every day. It sounds easy, but it?s kind of hard, when you don?t know anything about the lesson, to figure out what to do for 40 minutes. At first it was like a 40-minute lesson would take two to three hours to plan.?

Choosing to stay

Driggers officially completed his service through Teach For America after two years. But, like nearly 80 percent of the WHEELS faculty, he chose to continue teaching at the school.

?I got extremely lucky to be in the school I?m at,? he said. ?It?s a great school.?

He added, ?I really like what I?m doing. I like working with kids. When I applied, I chose special ed for whatever reason?it just felt right. There?s such a need for special-ed teachers, in New York City especially. That?s why I was placed there.?

Driggers said he likes the kids he teaches. The vast majority of them come from the Dominican-Puerto Rican neighborhoods that surround the school.

He said home life may be the biggest difference between students in New York City and students in Hillsboro.

?It?s difficult there,? he said. ?Our school is blessed with some really great families that are really supportive, but there are parents who aren?t.

?I think growing up in that area of New York is difficult,? he added. ?It?s rough. A lot kids are living with grandparents or some type of extended family.

?It?s less than what it was before, but there?s still gang activity and crime there. For the most part, they?re recent immigrants?first generation or second generation. Most are second-language learners.?

Driggers has become the special education specialist at WHEELS. Since arriving, he?s earned a master?s degree at Pace University, which is located a short walk from the former World Trade Center.

This month, Driggers will begin a program at Pace called Teaching and Research in Autism.

?It?s a post-graduate certificate program in severe disabilities in autism,? he said. ?It?s one of the only ones in the country that offers that kind of targeted course work.?

Life beyond school

Driggers said he?s enjoying his life beyond the classroom, too. He lives in Harlem, a 25-minute subway ride from the school.

?People ask me if there?s culture shock involved, but I think it?s so different that you don?t have any preconceived notions of what life is like,? he said of his adjustment to the Big Apple. ?You kind of have to take it one day at a time when you move there.?

As for leisure time, Driggers said, ?I do what I?d probably do in Kansas?hang out with friends, go to movies. I go to a lot of museums because they?re available, and a lot of museums I can go to for free whenever I want.?

He said his primary friend base are fellow KU alums who have moved to New York City like he did.

Driggers said he has never felt physically threatened during his stay in New York, whether in school or his own neighborhood.

?I think Manhattan as a whole has gotten safer from the ?90s, when the murder rates were astronomical,? he said. ?I never feel endangerment in my neighborhood?but it may be because I?m a 6-foot-tall male.?

Driggers did confirm the stereotype that New York is infested with rats.

?One day I was walking to school with a co-worker and one ran literally across her foot along the side of the street,? he said with a smile.

One stereotype that hasn?t proven to be true for Driggers is that New Yorkers are rude.

?If you were to ask anyone for directions, they?d happily oblige,? he said. ?I think what people take as being rude is people?s desire to get home or just to be in their own environment.

?There are so many people there, you don?t want to have social interactions at all,? he added. ?So the subway becomes a private space even though it?s very public. Even when you?re with someone you know, you don?t really talk much.?

So, has living in the big city ruined the prospect of returning to small-town living someday?

?I don?t say that,? he said. ?For now, I like where I live. But I like living in New York because of what I do. I think if I chose to do something different, I wouldn?t want to stay in New York because it?s a stressful environment to live in.

?Little things are compounded in their inconvenience,? he added. ?For example, getting to the grocery store is much more of an effort than it is here. You don?t have a car, so you don?t just jump in your car and go to the grocery store.

?I don?t know if I?d want to live there forever. I think when you get older, it would be difficult. I see old people living there now and I really don?t know how they make it.?

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