When Michelle Yaruqui arrived at Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy in sixth grade she could barely write in English. She came to the United States from Ecuador with her family when she was five, and the school she’d attended through fifth grade hadn’t challenged her.
“We would only watch movies for class sometimes, or just sit around and talk,” she said.
At North Star, the contrast was stark. Expectations were high, and at first she begged her mother to take her out. But her mother wouldn’t, and no matter how hard it was, “there was always a teacher you could turn to,” she said.
Now, getting ready to head into her senior year at Middlebury College, not only is she grateful for that experience, she’s considering coming back to Newark to teach at North Star, recognizing the enormous influence her teachers had on her and wanting to make the same difference for others.
Yaruqui is one of 155 rising college seniors who are trying out their teaching skills at Uncommon Schools this summer in various locations, including Newark. Uncommon Schools manages 52 schools in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts and serves 18,000 students — about 5,000 of them in Newark.
Every year, Uncommon Schools scours the country for students like Yaruqui who are bright, enthusiastic and committed to teaching in urban areas. A growing percentage of these college students are graduates of Uncommon themselves.
More than 500 college students have already gone through the Uncommon Schools Summer Teaching Fellows program since 2010, and this year’s group was by far the largest at 155 fellows. Of last year’s group, more than half came back to Uncommon to teach as full time teachers after they graduated from college.
The program is born out of the notion that students benefit from seeing themselves in the teachers at the front of the room. Nearly 80 percent of the Summer Teaching Fellows are college students of color, reflecting Uncommon’s commitment to teacher diversity.
“The Summer Teaching Fellows program represents a bright spot on the landscape of teacher recruitment,” said Paula White, New Jersey state director of Democrats for Education Reform.
“With an educator workforce in US public schools that is 82 percent white, teaching remains largely a racially homogenous profession,” said White, who is also the founder of a public charter school in the South Ward and former chief turnaround officer for the New Jersey Department of Education.
“It’s great to see a system of high-quality public schools in New Jersey that is actively working to change this reality,” White said.
At Uncommon, about 50 percent of teachers are people of color, more than double the national average of teachers of color in public school classrooms, and substantially higher than the percentage of public school teachers of color in U.S. urban areas.
According to a study of 100,000 black students by the Institute of Labor Economics released in April, having at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent and significantly increased their chance of aspiring to attend a four-year college. For low-income black boys, the results were even greater — their chance of dropping out of school fell 39 percent.
Ixhon Allen, now a math major at Montclair State University and also a North Star graduate, spent the summer teaching math and learning how to become a better teacher. She is seriously considering coming back as a North Star math teacher after she graduates next year.
“Seven years ago I was in ninth grade learning Algebra II, so I let my students know that I understand just what they are going through,” Allen said.
The fellows received training for several weeks in May and June before getting a taste of the teaching profession in Summer Academy at Uncommon’s public college-prep charter schools in Newark, Brooklyn, Troy, Rochester and Boston.
Adeyemi Oseni, a North Star graduate who is heading into his senior year at Stockton University, spent his time teaching first graders. During a math lesson, he tells the students not to get tricked by a word problem. Though he's only been teaching for a few years, he looks like he's been teaching for years because of the training he's received.
For Allen,Yaruqui and Oseni, the rigorous classes at North Star prepared them for success in college. That’s the drive they bring with them into their own classrooms now.
“If I didn’t have the opportunity to take AP classes in high school, I wouldn’t have even considered attempting a math major,” Allen said. “I’m glad that I was challenged in classes where it was safe to make a mistake.”
Her goal is to let her students know that their hard work now will pay off in the long run, just like it did for her.