Position: Twelth Grade Teacher / Track & Field Head Coach
School: International High School Langley Park
School District: Prince George's County Public Schools
City, State: Bladensburg, MD
Keishia Thorpe was nominated by a family member, Dr. Tresha Borris.
As a young woman and immigrant from a country with most of its population living below poverty line, Ms. Thorpe dreamed of living the American Dream. She worked very hard to earn a track and field scholarship to a college in the U.S, where she graduated at the top of her class. Since then, she made it her civic and personal responsibility to help others achieve their dreams of going to college, as well. After college, she began teaching English in Title I public schools, where she could help students from disadvantaged backgrounds realize and maximize their potential.
Over her 14 years as an educator, Ms. Thorpe has dedicated herself to preparing students for college, both in and outside of the classroom. The students she teaches are from similar backgrounds. Many of them are undocumented and struggle with the English language. Over the past six years, she has dedicated herself to helping her English language learners level up and prepare for college, an opportunity that most of them did not see as a possibility. Every year, more than 90% of her students vastly improve their English skills, both in their post-test scores and WIDA levels.
Even though she is a single mother, Ms. Thorpe has stayed after school at her workplace on many evenings, assisting a great number of her students with applying to colleges. As a result, she was honored as the district's Teacher of the Year Runner-up for 2018. She has also earned two mission awards from her school for preparing students for college and contributing to the school’s mission. She still stays in touch with and is a mentor to some of her students who are now in college.
One of her former students is now working in the Mayor’s office as Director of Culture and Diversity. This particular student was a part of an organization Ms. Thorpe started at school called the Hope Beyond Distance Foundation. With the foundation, she created a program to support immigrant students, especially those who were undocumented. She invited speakers who are immigrants to share their stories and created a safe space where students felt supported. She also successfully hosted two forums where she invited the Chancellor, city leaders, council members and immigration lawyers to answer questions from immigrant students’ families and offer support services. As a Union Leader representing her school, she was also involved in the initiative for DC to become a sanctuary city and promote safe schools for the immigrant student population. She also led her students in researching and developing presentations on immigration and created a platform through the program where they could share their voice about their immigrant experience in America with city leaders.
Several students received college scholarships from the Kiwanis and One World Education as a result. Along with her students, she wrote many letters to Congresswoman Eleanor Norton Holmes in favor of the DACA program. Beyond that, the program also allowed students to connect to their home countries. On different holidays she would sit with them and write hundreds of cards to send to schools and hospitals in their home countries.
Because of her care and involvement with her school, students and community, she was chosen by her school and school district as a travel ambassador. She visited the Bahamas with her students and taught at one of their high schools in Cat Island. She was instrumental in helping the school she taught at to become the first government-registered school in the Bahamas to offer AP subjects in preparing students to compete for scholarships and admission into US colleges. During her trip, she taught AP Language and Literature. After she returned to the U.S., she continued teaching and mentoring the students through Skype. The small cohort of students were all granted scholarships to college because of their Advanced Placement scores. Since then, more schools began using the model with their students to access AP courses, since most teachers on the island are not trained to teach AP courses.
"This goes to show how far reaching her impact is on students as an educator. I know she is still working with one superintendent in the Bahamas to expand the program so more students there will have access to AP courses, which will offer more opportunities for them to access colleges in the U.S," Borris said.
Outside of the classroom, Ms. Thorpe is the co-founder of a registered nonprofit, U.S. Elite International Track and Field, Inc. under which she created the Liaison International Scholarship Program. The Liaison Program was established to give student-athletes an opportunity to use their gifts and talents as a vehicle to access scholarships to earn a college diploma debt-free. As a student athlete from a disadvantaged background, the only opportunity she had to go to college was through her involvement in sports. Through the program, she helped student athletes realize their dream of college by encouraging them to use their talents.
"Most of these students do not necessarily have the highest GPA or SAT scores, but through the network she established with many college coaches, she is able to assist student athletes she coaches and those in the school district in achieving a debt-free education through track scholarship opportunities," Borris said.
The program she developed targets student athletes from low to moderate income families and those who are considered “at-risk." Most of the student athletes who enroll in her program and ones who she mentors are first-generation high school or college students.
"Since track and field gave her the hope of college when she was in high school and had no clue what was going to happen next, I think she feels obligated to pay it forward," Borris explained. "Through a track scholarship, she was able to complete college and had the opportunity to help her family. With the program, she wanted to provide the same access and opportunity for other student athletes to change their lives in the same way that higher education was able to change hers – not just for the athletes she coaches, but all athletes in her school district and community."
From the beginning, Ms. Thorpe has been using her own paycheck to make sure students had a way to pay for clearance for the Eligibility Center, pay for the SATs, or even admission fees to college for those experiencing extreme financial hardships. For the past nine years, she has reached out to community businesses and organizations to sponsor an Annual Scholarship and Athletic Convention. The Convention brings together a team of college coaches and college admissions and compliance teams who educate student athletes on college admissions, the Eligibility Center, SAT and ACT, DI, DII, and NAIA standards, NCAA compliance, and more topics that will help them to transition to college successfully. The day ends with an Olympic guest motivational speaker and a two-hour college fair, where student athletes get to interact with college coaches and admission representatives one on one. Most students usually get recruited on the spot.
Ms. Thorpe has spent hours writing grants and partnering with shoe companies to make sure all athletes who cannot afford tennis shoes for track practice get a pair at the event. What started as a local initiative became an international one, as the student athletes in the program talked about how they benefitted, and coaches requested her to do workshops with their athletes in other states and countries.
"It is intruiging to see how she forms a personal relationship with each individual student athlete, guarantee each of them a college scholarship, and come through for each of them. Not only was she helping domestic students, but her international population grew because students wanted to attend college in the U.S., but were totally unaware of the legalities and the international student process," Borris said.
Ms. Thorpe wanted to make sure she equipped those students, not only with equal access to opportunities, but all the necessary information for attending U.S. colleges, especially due to the current immigration laws. With many international students reaching out, especially from the Caribbean, she hosted three successful conventions in Jamaica to educate college-bound student athletes, and she received a lot of support there. This year, she hosted the Annual Scholarship and Athletic Convention in Freeport, Bahamas and was able to get the Ministry of Education in the Bahamas to support my initiative.
On October 17, 2018, the country-wide newspaper, The Freeport News, published a spread on the benefits of her college bound initiative to the Bahamas. It will offer students a chance to go to college debt-free and help reduce the opportunity, income and achievement gaps in the Bahamas, where the largest population contributing to the unemployment rate are those under 20 years old (high school graduates). She continues to do the same for her students and those in her school community daily.
While helping students to achieve their dreams, she made sure she stuck to accomplishing her own professional goals as well, to be a constant role model and equip herself enough to advocate for students in meaningful ways. While managing the organization’s college bound programs, she qualified for 2 Olympic trials, completed her MEd. and her USA Track and Field Level II and AIC National Coach’s Certification. She has been chosen a presenter in various school district professional development and at College Board AP Conferences, sharing her best classroom practices with other educators. She has also published research in education.
"She continues to strive for greatness to be an example to the college bound students she mentors, to show them if she can do it, then they can," Borris said.
Ms. Thorpe currently teaches at a new Title I school for English Language Learners, where she has been put in charge of creating and teaching the entire English Language Curriculum and two AP courses – AP English Literature and Composition and the new AP Capstone Seminar. Her goal is to expose her students to the kind of academic rigor they will experience in college and prepare them for life beyond the classroom, with skills they can transfer to any aspects of their lives.
"Many critics believe that ELL students are incapable of taking and being successful in AP courses, but she thinks that whether or not they pass the exam with a high score, the level of critical thinking they are able to achieve and the knowledge they are able gain is going to be invaluable to their post-secondary pursuits," Borris said. "Therefore, she is relentless in encouraging perseverance in her students and giving them hope where many doubt their abilities. She has stayed after school to tutor her students and is always available through her email anytime to help them. "
Ms. Thorpe has registered her students to be exposed to and attend their first live Shakespeare play. She has also just helped her students to write and revise their Common Application essays for college admission and mentoring a large group of them, no easy feat when you teach more than 70 students. Under her coaching of track and field, her cross-country athletes placed first in the regional championship, placed second as a team, and have qualified for the first time for the national championship. This is a great accomplishment for a new school of 3 years.
"The school will graduate its first class of seniors in 2019, and I am proud of her work with the students and her role in their journey," Borris said.