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A 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.”

A Smith UEI Fellow and her charges

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 UEI program.

“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.

Kathleen Reutter ’09, UEI Fellow, receiving thanks from a student

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 and students.”

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 Educational Outreach 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 college matriculation.

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.

1/16/07   By Jessie Fredlund ’07 and Eric Sean Weld
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