Jumping out of bed at 5 a.m., I left my temporary Park Avenue residence to take the subway uptown for my job at KIPP Star Elementary School in Washington Heights, where I worked in January as a teaching assistant for a first-grade class of 28 students through the Urban Education Initiative program.
As I waited for the train, I thought about my new student, John. We had to learn to read 253 words that week. Would my class get it all done? Could I do this? Would it make a difference? Taking one last sip of coffee, the subway doors opened and my day began.
I pursued the Urban Education Initiative as a way to jump into the deep end of the fascinating education field, and as a way to help me define the next step of my journey as a student. Previously, my urban educational experiences included working as a guitar teacher for Girls Rock Philly, a rock n’ roll and empowerment summer camp for young girls in Philadelphia, and most recently as a personal academic tutor for Smith’s Project Coach in Springfield, Mass. Both of these experiences piqued my interest in urban education and pulled my heart into the matter, as I formed close bonds with my students and became aware of their individual challenges growing up in the two cities.
However, my time as an Urban Ed Fellow provided a challenge unlike any of my previous positions. Though I was officially a teaching assistant, my job description ranged from photocopying to first-aid to working one-on-one with students like John, who were just beginning to read. My classroom, called the Michigan Wolverines, was co-taught by two talented women, but its students presented deep behavioral and academic differences and challenges.
KIPP Star is currently in its second year of operation, and observing a school in its formative years was eye-opening. I had the privilege of working in the company of Katherine LeBron ’12, a Teach for America Corps member and kindergarten teacher in her first year.
The days are long at KIPP Star. Each school day is nine hours of classroom time, and several more hours of planning and grading work. Every day was a rollercoaster of interactions, as I came to know 28 students, two teachers, and many members of the administration.
The days began with morning program, a “pump-up” assembly where the students dance and sing KIPP songs that promote showing Character, one of KIPP’s five core values (the others: Choice, Curiosity, Confidence, and Community). The hours that followed were heavily scheduled with academics, and a few “specials,” such as art and fitness. It is a schedule that was an enormous accomplishment for 6-year-olds to complete each day. It was also an enormous challenge for me, and left me spent when I returned home.
The Urban Education Initiative, launched in 1999, grants January Interterm fellowships to Smith undergraduates, who intern with classroom teachers in urban schools in New York, Boston, and
Springfield. Most fellows are placed in classrooms and schools of Smith alumnae—many of whom were introduced to urban teaching through their own fellowship experiences. The program was originally funded by a grant from Debra Gastler ’75, with additional funding provided by Alison Overseth ’80, Jane Cecil ’50, Jeanne La Croix Crocker ’45 and the family of Claire Abisalih ’12. “The generosity of our alumnae have enabled us to provide students with an opportunity to learn first-hand about great teaching, school reform, and the critical issues facing urban educators,” notes Urban Ed program founder Sam Intrator, professor of education and child study.
Urban Ed fellows lived with Smith alumnae in New York City while teaching at public schools in the city last month. Some of the fellows wrote about their experience for the Gate.
Throughout my Urban Ed Fellowship, I often felt like I was straddling the border of two different worlds. I was welcomed into a community in a West Harlem school while living as a guest to a family on the Upper East Side, and frequently indulging in some of the finest food, art, music and sights the city had to offer.
My host, Anne Bodnar ’78, CAO of Towers Watson, graciously opened her home to me and fellow Urban Ed participant Gloria Lee ’15. She guided us in learning to navigate New York.
The contrast between my living and working situations was at times jarring, but one that enabled me to engage as a guest in two worlds I had never experienced.
I returned to campus this semester empowered by my realization that an education at Smith leads to invaluable connections and experiences that open countless doors. Also, I emerged from the January fellowship with a strengthened passion for education, a newly ignited interest in urban educational policy, and a desire to begin exploring the field of counseling, since I truly enjoyed the time I spent working one-on-one with children, and addressing their individual challenges.
I had the privilege of watching young students start their journeys to college, and the opportunity to observe a system of education that was foreign to me. I now see the world of education and my own educational journey with fresh eyes, and I am ready to take on my next challenge.