Two Pine Bluff natives count their formative years as an important foundation in shaping their professional paths to a career in education through Teach for America.

Two Pine Bluff natives count their formative years as an important foundation in shaping their professional paths to a career in education through Teach for America.

Kanesha Barnes is a Watson Chapel High School graduate who majored in criminal justice and sociology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She enrolled as a graduate student at Oklahoma State University, where she heard about Teach for America. After being accepted, Barnes chose education as her career.

"I did research on the academic achievement gap between Caucasian and African-American students when I was at UALR," Barnes said.

"I am really excited to impact lives in the community I grew up in," said Barnes, who completed one year at Oklahoma State before joining Teach for America. "I am excited to manifest great leaders in Pine Bluff and Arkansas."

Barnes will begin teaching at Lighthouse Charter School in Pine Bluff in August. At the same time, she plans to finish her master’s degree courses at OSU online and be able to graduate in December.

"I expect to face challenges in the classroom," she said. "I will help kids understand why education is important. Teach for America is a great opportunity to give back to my community where I was able to become a teacher.

"I am fortunate to be placed back in my hometown," she said.

Denesha Roberts is also a Pine Bluff native. She attended Pine Bluff schools before transferring into Watson Chapel School District. She majored in broadcast journalism for radio and television at Arkansas State University, where she graduated in May.

"I grew up in a neighborhood of high crime," Roberts said. "Luckily, my parents pushed me to succeed and focus on school."

She began working with low-income teenagers through her church group, mentoring those deemed to be at-risk.

"These kids were not going to get opportunities to go further in life," Roberts said. "Between my junior and senior year at Arkansas State, I decided to do something to help improve their lives.

"Teach for America gave me the opportunity to take a non-traditional route to become a teacher," she said.

Two months after earning her bachelor’s degree, Roberts looks forward to teaching at Blytheville High School in northeast Arkansas. She draws parallels between herself and her students.

During her formative years, Roberts said that she had teachers telling her she would not amount to anything. This exchange left lasting pain that she does not want the current students to have to endure.

Roberts credits her family and faith in helping to lay the foundation for her success. Teach for America is also invaluable in that it exposes her to a wide array of people from various cultural, social and economic backgrounds, she said.

"Growing up in Pine Bluff, you are exposed only to so much in terms of socioeconomic differences," Roberts said.

Teach For America is a national nonprofit working to expand educational opportunity for low-income students. Teachers commit to teach for two years in high-need urban or rural public schools and become lifelong leaders in pursuit of educational equity.

"Our corps members and alumni have made a meaningful impact with their students and communities over time," Elisa Villanueva Beard, co-CEO of Teach For America, said in a statement. "I can’t wait to see the leadership, passion, dedication and innovation this year’s corps will bring to their classrooms nationwide."