They've survived in the remote highlands of Zaire, taught in schools with no paper and in classrooms where four or five students shared one textbook and where holes cut into the walls drew in the wind and rain.
Now, Baltimore figures they're ready to tackle this city's troubled schools.
The Peace Corps, which sends its volunteers to teach in some of the most impoverished corners of the world, is expanding its mission to include America's neediest school systems.
Starting this September, about 25 returning Peace Corps volunteers will start teaching in key city schools as part of a new program adopted yesterday by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Towson State University.
Baltimore is the 14th school district in the country to join the Peace Corps Fellows program, which began five years ago at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York but only expanded to other universities last fall.
"I'm told the slogan of the Peace Corps is 'The toughest job you'll ever love,' " said Mayor Schmoke at a signing ceremony yesterday. "We're not too sure about that. We're looking forward to a lot of tough love."
Indeed, many returning Peace Corps volunteers said they found their teaching jobs in New York City's public high schools tougher than the privations of teaching in a foreign land, according to Paul D. Coverdell, director of the Peace Corps. But "these are exceptional Americans, and they have enormous capacity," he said. "They're a very savvy, streetwise bunch of people."
The fellows program places returning Peace Corps volunteers in two-year university master's programs -- where their tuition is at least partly subsidized through private or public funds -- and simultaneously puts them to work in public schools where they earn full-time salaries.
In Baltimore, fellows will study part time for master's degrees in teaching at Towson State University, which has applied for a $142,000 two-year grant from the Abell Foundation to help pay three-quarters of each fellows' total tuition of $4,000.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said the request will go to the group's board next week. It was Mr. Embry who contacted the Peace Corps last year after reading about the program and calling enthusiastic New York City officials.
In New York, fellows educated at the Teachers College at Columbia University have been teaching in the city's public high schools for the past five years. There are 50 fellows this year. They have a better-than-average retention rate compared with other first-year teachers, and about 75 percent to 80 percent remain in education or related fields after the two-year program is completed, said William J. Baldwin, associate dean of Teachers College.
They've won teaching awards, foundation grants and accolades from principals, Mr. Baldwin said. "We hear nothing but praise," he said. "There's demonstrable evidence that they're exceptionally good teachers."
Mr. Embry said the foundation plans to track the program to see whether it is succeeding in Baltimore, where the first fellows will be selected by the summer. The fellows, among 378 in the nation, will receive the same salaries as regular teachers -- who start at $22,162 a year -- depending on their level of experience.
They will be expected to seek teacher certification unless they are already certified, said Chester F. Preyar, the city's assistant school superintendent for personnel.