Monica Reed, who grew up on the border of Newark’s South and Central wards, is getting ready to start her senior year at Delaware State University.
But she spent the summer back in Newark teaching seventh graders at Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy the Lord of the Flies. “The students started to love the book so much, there were moments where I’d have to stop the debate,” Reed said.
Before this summer, she was a psychology major, unsure of whether she wanted to be a teacher. Now she knows. She plans to come back to Newark after she graduates next year to teach.
That’s exactly what was supposed to happen. Reed is among 130 rising college seniors who are part of this year’s Summer Teaching Fellows program at Uncommon Schools.
College students came from 27 states and Puerto Rico. More than 80% are people of color and nearly 20% are men of color. More than 80% of this year’s Fellows will get a job offer at the end of the summer to come back and teach at an Uncommon School when they graduate from college in 2020.
Uncommon Schools’ program reflects its commitment to increase the percentage of teachers of color in their classrooms. About 50% of its teachers are people of color, more than twice the national figure of 17%.
The program is gaining attention. This year, State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet came to the training in Newark and addressed the recruits.
“You all have powers,” he told the college students just before they were sent into their own classrooms. “You’re super heroes. You have the power to instill a love of learning.”
A groundbreaking 2017 Johns Hopkins University study found that black students with one teacher of color during their elementary school years were 29 percent less likely to drop out of high school. The impact was even greater for low-income black males with 39 percent less likely to drop out of school.
The Commissioner has said increasing the numbers of teachers of color is a priority for the New Jersey Department of Education.
Newark Superintendent Roger Leon also spoke to the students, leaving behind his business cards and inviting them to come back after their senior year to teach in Newark.
“You need to understand that this city needs of the very best,” Leon told the students.
Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and a Democrat who represents Newark, also addressed the college students, telling them that more than 160,000 students in New Jersey never get to see a person of color leading in the classroom.
“Many of our students don't see the same diversity that's reflected in the classroom,” said Ruiz, who sponsored legislation to increase the number of black men as teachers in public schools.
In February, Ruiz led a joint committee conference about the impact of New Jersey’s teacher certification barriers. Uncommon Schools’ principal Na’Jee Carter and teacher Laura Ann Jones testified.
Jones, whose third grade students score among the highest in the state, kept failing a part of the Praxis she needed to pass for certification that was unrelated to what she was teaching to her young charges. She nearly dropped out of teaching because of the ordeal -- but finally passed the Praxis after taking it over a dozen times.
Ruiz has been working on addressing the issues.
“The truth of the matter is that society has done a disservice to the greatest profession that anyone can commit themselves to,” she told the Summer Teaching Fellows. “Before there was the best surgeon or the greatest president there were always teachers that planted the seed.”
For college students like Reed, the idea of positively impacting the lives of children who look like her sparked her interest in becoming a teacher.
She views herself as a role model for her students.
“They have an African American female from Newark telling them that they can be anything they want to be,” Reed said. “I tell them about my journeys and about being active at Delaware State, and introducing them to HBCUs and talking about college in general. I always tell them education is the key to success.”
Increasingly, Uncommon Schools’ own graduates are coming back to teach at the schools.
Kristie Valentin, a senior at Lafayette College majoring in history and psychology, entered North Star Academy in fifth grade and graduated from its high school in 2016. Valentin, who grew up in the North Ward, hopes to return to Newark to teach at North Star.
“I want to give back to students who like who are like me, who grew up in the same situation,” Valentin said, who also did student teaching last year in a suburban district outside of Philadelphia. “I definitely would prefer teaching in an Uncommon School model because you know that the students are paying attention to you at all times, you know the kids are learning and you can see the progress they are making every day.”