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Uncommon Schools inspires dozens of new teachers of color to work in Brooklyn

August 1, 2016 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Photo courtesy of Uncommon Schools

After spending the last few weeks teaching Summer Academy at Uncommon Schools’ Excellence Girls Charter School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Darriana Howard is hoping to come back to Brooklyn to teach after she finishes her senior year at Bucknell University next year.

The Boston native is one of 147 rising college seniors from around the country who spent the bulk of their summer break as Uncommon Schools’ Summer Teaching Fellows. They received training for several weeks in May and June before getting a taste of the teaching profession in Summer Academy in July in Brooklyn and other cities in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, where Uncommon operates public college-prep charter schools.

“Every day I go into the classroom wanting to be better than the day before,” said Howard, who was raised by a single mom in Boston’s South End, a neighborhood much like the one she’s been teaching in this summer in Brooklyn. “Students that look like me aren’t always taught to walk with their head held high. I love that we are helping them develop their confidence.”

Uncommon Schools, which runs 22 schools in Brooklyn with 7,000 students, every year scours the country for the brightest college juniors interested in teaching in urban areas. All together, Uncommon Schools runs 49 schools serving 16,000 students in three states—New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Over 400 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 147.  

About 70 percent of the college students are black or Latino, reflecting Uncommon Schools’ commitment to teacher diversity. About 40 percent of Uncommon’s full-time Brooklyn teachers are black or Latino—more than double the national average in U.S. public schools – and Uncommon is committed to increasing that number even further.

“I was glad to see so many college students of color in the classroom this summer,” said Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley, who visited the program recently. “It’s clear that Uncommon Schools is committed to increasing the numbers of teachers of color in our classrooms in Brooklyn.”

Many of the college students in the program talk about Uncommon’s mission of “breaking the norms for our black and brown students,” Howard said. “In our society, we’re not expected to excel and ask questions, but at Uncommon Schools, the students achieve at very high levels and I love being part of that.”

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More than half of the Fellows who teach in the summer at Uncommon Schools come back to teach full time after they graduate from college.

“When they see the impact they are having on students in just a short period of time, they are sold on teaching at Uncommon Schools,” said Shana Pyatt, Director of Diversity at Uncommon Schools.

“They see there’s a science behind great teaching and great instruction and realize ‘I can learn this and it’s not a trick, it’s something I can be taught and learn and practice’,” Pyatt said. And then once they get in front of children, “you realize you’re impacting human lives, you’re not making widgets in a factory.”

One of those Fellows who recognized her impact on children was Shavon Mathus, who was a Fellow in the summer of 2013 and is now a full-time teacher at Uncommon Schools’ Excellence Girls. The organization’s commitment to diversity is one of the reasons that keeps her there.

“Our staff is so diverse and that’s something that our families are excited to see,” Mathus said. “They feel their children are getting such a rich experience from that.”

Having been the only senior of color graduating in the education program at DePauw University, Mathus appreciates the completely different experience she and her students are having at Uncommon Schools.

“When we have staff meetings, there’s such a rich conversation about curriculum, about communication with families and it’s that much more engaging for us as teachers and impactful for students because we are such a diverse staff,” Mathus said.

“It’s important for our teachers to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our student body,” said Jacobi Clifton, one of the Summer Academy directors, and a full-time Dean of Students at Uncommon Schools. “Our Summer Teaching Fellows program is another way for us to recruit some of the best, brightest and most passionate teachers in America.”

Some of those Fellows returned to the same elementary and middle schools they attended as students.

Raven Cruz, who graduated from Uncommon Schools’ Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School and Uncommon Charter High School in 2013, is spending the summer teaching at her alma mater.

Cruz, who is Puerto Rican, said she is passionate about helping students like her close the achievement gap.

“With me being in the classroom, it shows students that I’m invested in coming back and teaching them,” said Cruz, who is majoring in adolescent education with a concentration in English at the State University of New York at Oswego. “I am an example of someone who made it out. Sometimes, it may feel like they are never going to finish because it’s so difficult. But I want to inspire them and show them that they can go to college and make something of themselves.”

Like Cruz, many of the students who are returning to the schools they attended years earlier said they wanted to be a positive role model.

Fellows spend their first week, including Memorial Day weekend, in teacher skills training. During the next two weeks of their fellowship, they are paired with strong teachers to observe and practice. In their fourth week, they begin working on their lessons plans and receive additional training. By their fifth week, they begin teaching a class of their own, with heavy support from an experienced teacher, during Summer Academies offered by Uncommon Schools.

For more information about teaching at Uncommon Schools, visit www.uncommonschools.org.

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