High schoolers get a chance to teach urban children

Lindsey Sample, left, is assisted on paper by Lauren Dorfman, second from left, of Council Rock South High School, as Jonathan Carmona, center, of the Pinelands, helps Nee'Na Lambert as part of a two-week program, the Urban Teacher Academy, at the Lanning Square School in Camden. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

Adrienne Stewart, 17, of Burlington Township, and JasaRay Gonazalez, 8, of Camden, met for the first time last week.

It was on JasaRay's turf: Lanning Square School.

The inner-city Camden school was hosting a program to help rising seniors, like child of the suburbs Stewart, get a taste of being urban educators.

Some students - the older ones as well as the little ones - were shy, so a grown-up in charge suggested that they shake hands, a simple gesture to cross the gap between seemingly different worlds.

Stewart, the daughter of a teacher, moved closer, leaning into JasaRay's efforts to identify vowel and consonant sounds, ready to step in if she needed a hand. JasaRay, in turn, flashed an infectious smile.

"She was really cute, and she was really smart," Stewart said of her learning partner after the exercise was over.

"It was cool. She was sweet," JasaRay, an aspiring doctor, said of Stewart.

And they were just getting started.

This is the second summer for the Rowan Urban Teacher Academy (RUTA), created by Rowan University to give high school students, regardless of where they live, a chance to explore teaching and possibly ignite a passion for urban education.

"There's always a need for urban educators because there's high turnover," said Steve Farney, program director and associate dean of Rowan's College of Education. It's rewarding but demanding work, he said.

During the two-week program, ending this week, the high school students are paired with Camden students from kindergarten through fourth grade. They also meet with Camden community leaders, local teachers, education experts, and English-as-a-second-language students.

Then there's the highlight - and a test of a future teacher's mettle: shepherding a bunch of excited youngsters to the Franklin Institute.

The teenagers and the little ones end up bonding, Farney said. And that's another key part of a program that challenges assumptions about Camden and teaching in places like it.

At the start of the program last year, RUTA surveyed the high schoolers on their perceptions of urban education. A lot was negative. They dwelled on danger.

But after time in the program, "those responses did a 180," Farney said.

Aspiring teacher Melissa Calabrese, 18, a graduate of Cherry Hill High School East, was in the program last summer and is back to help out. She acknowledged feeling a bit intimidated last year, before she got to know the city children.

The experience, Calabrese said, opened her eyes to working in a place like Camden.

"I've always wanted to be a teacher," said Calabrese, who will start at Rowan in September, "but this made me 110 percent more sure that this is what I want to do."

The Camden youngsters get a lot out of the program, too.

This year, RUTA is collaborating with the Cooper Reading Institute at Lanning Square, a six-week program aimed at combating the academic summer slide. Students score 34 percent higher when tested in the fall compared with students not in the program, according to Kitty Slater, a Lanning Square teacher who is the liaison to the summer program.

Having the RUTA students on board "adds a wonderful dimension," said Pamela Goldberger, Cooper's educational coordinator.

Some of the would-be teachers already know both worlds and what a bridge education can be.

Mariely Dejesus, 17, of Camden, expects to be the first in her family to go to college. Her mother babysits and cares for the elderly. Her father owns a corner store in Philadelphia.

She heard about RUTA from her guidance counselor at Camden Academy, a charter high school. She wants to teach special education or English as a second language, and she wants to make a difference by doing it in Camden.

"Our reputation is we're a dangerous city, but if you have devotion, you'll be fine," she said. "Nothing will get in your way."

Jonathan Carmona, 17, from Little Egg Harbor, knows about things that can get in the way.

In 10th grade, he said, he was planning to drop out of school and was doing things that could have gotten him arrested. Then a special teacher told him he was too smart to be wasting his life on the street.

It stuck. Now, he said, he's an A and B student, interested in going into special education or teaching delinquent youth.

"My teacher saved my life," he said, "so I'm returning the favor."

 


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.