As a teacher at West Charlotte High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, I taught an incredibly talented, intelligent group of ninth graders. But when they entered my classroom on the first day of school, they were, on average, reading at a fifth-grade level. Of the 2,000 students at West Charlotte High — almost all of whom who were African American and facing the additional challenges that come along with growing up in poverty — more than half were freshman because so many had been held back. Just down the road, less than 10 miles away, was one of the highest performing schools in the state, where students saw college as the inevitable next step after graduation. For most of my students, college was a luxury they had never considered.

As an undergrad at UCSB, I was very involved in the effort to expand access to the UC system for low-income students. As a first-generation college student myself, I felt strongly that affordability should never be an impediment to college attainment. But when I joined the community at West Charlotte High School, I discovered that college access is more than affordability. College access also requires college readiness built through an education that prepares students for the rigors of college-level work. My students were being shortchanged by a system that wasn’t giving them the kind of education that would put them on a path to and through college.

Their story is all too common among kids growing up in low-income communities. When children growing up in poverty enter kindergarten, they are already academically behind their wealthier peers. This gap in educational opportunity only widens over time. By the fourth grade, they are three grade levels behind and half won’t graduate from high school. Only one in 10 will attend college, and for those lacking a college degree, many doors are firmly shut.

It doesn’t have to be this way. My kids proved this to me every day. With hard work and the support of committed adults, my students were able to grow 2.5 years in just one school year. With an all-hands-on-deck approach, the achievement gap between kids growing up in poverty and their more affluent peers is a solvable problem. That’s why I joined Teach For America after graduating from UCSB in 2005. After teaching for two years, I joined Teach For America’s recruitment team so I could help more Gaucho leaders become classroom leaders, and two years later I was excited to take on my current role as executive director of Teach For America in Oklahoma. I now lead a network of more than 200 corps members and alumni who have committed to lifelong leadership in the effort to give every child — regardless of their family income — an excellent education.

I can think of nothing more impactful a recent college graduate can undertake than shaping the lives of a classroom of students. They only get one shot at a good education and without a quality K-12 experience, they won’t have the option to become a Gaucho and experience a world-class UCSB education.

Knowing that we can close the achievement gap, I simply can’t walk away from this work. As you think about the role you will play in the broader world upon graduation, I hope you will consider joining me in these efforts. Teach For America’s final application deadline is approaching on Feb. 10. I urge you to visit to learn more or start your application.

Lance Tackett is a UCSB alumnus and the executive director of Teach For America in Oklahoma.