Uncommon Schools Inspires Dozens of New Teachers of Color to Work in Newark

| 54sc
July 20, 2016

NewarkInc.

Kamani Cook-Christian, who graduated from Newark’s North Star Academy Clinton Hill Middle School and North Star Academy High School in 2013, was selected to participate in Uncommon School's Summer Teaching Fellows program.

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Something unexpected happened to Equel Easterling this summer when he started teaching at Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy, where he attended middle school.

“I began to see myself in some of the students,” he said, particularly the boys who were fooling around or not taking class seriously. “That used to be me,” he said. And as a rising senior at Morehouse College now looking back at his behavior in middle school, “it means so much more to me to know what I missed. So I don’t want them to miss what I missed.”

It’s this that drives Easterling’s passion for teaching now, a passion that he said was cemented this summer through the Uncommon Schools Summer Teaching Fellows Program.

Uncommon Schools, which operates 12 North Star Academy schools in Newark with over 4,000 students, every year scours the country for the brightest college juniors interested in teaching in urban areas, picks the top candidates, and then trains them for several weeks in June before giving them a taste of the teaching profession at summer school in July.

This year, Easterling was one of 147 such college juniors, the largest group yet for the program. Since 2010, more than 400 college students have participated in the program.

Among this year’s Summer Teaching Fellows, nine graduated from an Uncommon school and now want to return to the cities they grew up in to serve their communities as teachers. About 70 percent of the Fellows are students of color, reflecting Uncommon Schools’ commitment to having a diverse teaching force. About 42 percent of Uncommon Schools teachers are minorities, more than double the national average in public schools in the U.S.

Newark North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, Jr., who visited the Summer Teaching Fellows Program at North Star Academy, said he was impressed with what he saw.

“I’m happy to see North Star’s commitment to attracting black and Latino teachers to come teach in Newark public schools through this program, especially young teachers who themselves graduated from North Star and are now coming back to teach in their community,” Ramos said.

Lavar Young, executive director of Black Alliance for Educational Options, applauded Uncommon Schools’ efforts to ensure that teachers reflect the community in which they teach.

“Uncommon Schools is clearly committed to ensuring our students have access to teachers that look like them,” Young said. “They don’t just talk about diversity, they are actually making it happen with this successful program.”

A majority of the teaching fellows will get an offer to teach at Uncommon Schools full time after they graduate in June of 2017 — and, in line with past years’ experience, Uncommon expects most of those will say yes.

“When they see the impact they are having on students in just a short period of time, they are sold on teaching at our schools,” said Shana Pyatt, Director of Diversity at Uncommon Schools. “They see there’s a science behind great teaching and great instruction and realize ‘I can learn this and it’s not a trick, it’s something I can be taught and learn and practice.’”

And then once they get in front of children, “You realize you’re impacting human lives, they’re not making widgets in a factory,” Pyatt said.

For Paris Murray, one of the best things about the Uncommon Schools Summer Teaching Fellows program is “being around people of color” focused on the same mission: to become great teachers serving low-income areas.

Murray graduated from North Star High School in 2013 and now attends DePauw University, a predominantly white college. She has appreciated now seeing the school from the other side — the amount of preparation that goes into teaching.

“I always knew they worked hard,” Murray said, referring to her former teachers at North Star. “As a teacher now I see how there’s always room for getting better.”

Kamani Cook-Christian, who graduated from Newark’s North Star Academy Clinton Hill Middle School and North Star Academy High School in 2013, said she didn’t consider teaching until she read the alumni newsletter about the summer fellowship program.

“I realized I was going to have two little sisters going to North Star,” said Cook-Christian, who is double majoring in sociology and English at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. “One of things I am most proud of is being a great example. I felt I would be doing a disservice to myself and my community by not coming back and giving back.”

John Cosme, another North Star grad who is now a math major at Felician University, spent the summer learning how to teach difficult math to high school students. Each fellow received their own mentor—an experienced teacher at Uncommon Schools.

“The best part of this summer was the feedback I got,” said Cosme, who himself had to go to summer school when he was a North Star student. “I was so excited to meet with my mentor to hear what I could improve on the next day,” he said. He has three siblings still at North Star, and one of them was his student this summer.

All four fellows—Easterling, Cook-Christian, Murray and Cosme—say they are very interested in coming back to Newark to teach after they graduate from college in June of 2017.

Students spend their first week, including Memorial Day weekend, in teacher skills training. During the next two weeks of their fellowship, they are paired with strong teachers to observe and practice. In their fourth week, they begin working on their lessons plans and receive additional training. By their fifth week, they begin teaching a class of their own, with heavy support from an experienced teacher, during summer school offered by Uncommon Schools.

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