Dose of Urban Education
Were it not for her participation
in the Urban Education Initiative program during her senior
year, Cristina Jacobs ’06 would not have gone on to
teach in New York City after graduation.
“The first day I took on
a lesson on my own, I felt more like myself than ever,”
recalls Jacobs of her experience as an Urban Education Fellow.
“I was in the classroom teaching from the perspective
that I knew best, that of a college student thinking about
her future. Participating in the Urban Education Initiative
not only helped me transfer my academic pursuits to experience
and practice, but also convinced me of my desire to teach.”
Now in its seventh year, the
Urban Education Initiative (UEI) is a Smith program that grants
fellowships to undergraduates who assist classroom teachers
in urban schools during the January Interterm. Program participants
work as teachers’ assistants (not as student teachers),
observing, tutoring students one-on-one, running small-group
lessons, and conducting miscellaneous tasks as needed. Smith’s
35 participants joined another 35 from Williams, Middlebury
and Amherst colleges in this year’s program.
The program is funded by a grant
from Debra Gastler ’75, whose daughter Katie Malloy
Cole ’02 participated as an Urban Ed Fellow in New York
City while at Smith. Gastler made the grant in memory of her
mother, Nan Gastler, who was a 1st-grade teacher.
Most the program participants
live and work in New York City for more than three weeks during
January, but some of the fellows teach in Springfield, Chicago
and -- for the first time this year -- Boston schools. The
program aims to open doors for students interested in education,
as well as for the younger students with whom they work during
the month, says Sam Intrator, associate professor of education
and child study at Smith, and the founding director of the
“City youth desperately
need passionate, intelligent, and caring teachers,”
said Intrator, who grew up in New York City and specializes
in urban education. “The UEI is an effort to provide
Smith students with on-the-ground experience in urban school
settings. It’s a chance to roll up their sleeves and
get a taste of how important the work of teaching is.”
Now, as an alumna of the UEI
program, Jacobs is hosting her own undergraduate fellow in
her 9th-grade classroom at Bronx Expeditionary Learning High
School. “It has been a great way to bring experience
full circle and has refreshed my reflective perspective on
my profession,” she said.
Many former participants have
taken teaching jobs in urban schools, in New York City, nearby
Springfield, Oakland, California, and other American cities.
Like Jacobs, several of those teachers now serve as mentors
for current fellows helping in their urban classrooms.
“Over the years, we have
developed a dynamic network of Smith alumnae working in urban
schools,” says Intrator. “These alumnae of the
Urban Ed Fellowship refer to the current students as the ‘Smith
cavalry’ in that they show up in January ready to pitch
in and to do whatever needs to be done to support the teacher
Students in an array of majors
participate in the program, although all share an interest
in urban education and a love of working with children, says
Gail Scordilis, director of at Smith, the office that coordinates the UEI
program. “[UEI fellows] need to be strong, they need
to be secure and they need to be confident,” said Scordilis.
The job of UEI fellows is far
from easy, say participants, and they sometimes encounter
frustrated and pessimistic teachers. Yet, students are often
able to see first-hand how urban education can be successful.
In both cases, student fellows are rewarded by the positive
impact they have on younger students’ education, whether
it be helping them understand long division or assisting their
Participants in the program have
taken an active role in talking to students about college,
encouraging high school students to apply and helping them
through the process. Smith participants also encourage middle
school and high school girls to consider attending Smith’s
summer programs, such as STEP UP, the Summer Talent Exploration
Program – Unleashing Potential, for middle school girls
from Chicago and Springfield, and the Summer Science and Engineering
Program for high school girls.
Some program alumnae, such as
Julie Esterline AC ‘07J, have gone on to help students
in Smith’s summer programs. “Being able to bring
7th-grade girls from Chicago here to the Smith campus to show
them what their future could hold was an experience I'll never
forget,” said Esterline, who helped with the STEP UP
program after her first year as a UEI fellow, two years ago.
In addition to assisting teachers,
the Urban Ed Fellows participate in educational seminars and
side trips during the January program. On January 4, more
than 70 Urban Ed Fellows gathered at Williams College for
a seminar, which included a panel of New York City school
principals, featuring a presentation by Joel Klein, Chancellor
of New York City schools.
“Chancellor Klein is one
of the most important leaders in education today,” said
Intrator. “He was excited to speak with us because he
realizes that his most important job is to recruit talented
teachers to New York City schools.”
Many UEI participants hope their
experience in the program will help them decide whether to
pursue a career in teaching and prepare them for that path.
“I thought UEI would be
a great opportunity to see if I could really teach by being
immersed in a classroom setting for a month,” said Springfield
native Sable Cady ’08, who is participating this January
for the second time. “When I graduate I would like to
teach in Springfield because I really believe in the school
system and the community.”
For others, the most important
part may be the sheer fun of working with children.
“Mainly, I just can't wait
to be back with kids!” exclaimed Kathleen Reutter ’09
before setting off for New York earlier this month.