By: Krista Ramsey
November 8, 2010
Rothenberg Preparatory Academy principal Alesia Smith says she can spot an urban teacher in an instant.
The teacher is irresistibly drawn to children, a multi-tasker, approachable, creative and - most important - determined to let nothing stand in the way of instruction.
"They say to children, 'Oh, you're hungry? Go get something to eat.' But they keep on teaching," Smith says. "Students don't need your pity. That only handicaps them."
Such is the wisdom Smith passes on to a cadre of Miami University education majors who come to Rothenberg (pre-K to grade 8) in Over the Rhine specifically to prepare for a career in city schools.
As part of Miami's Urban Teaching Cohort, the college students are encouraged to live in their students' neighborhood for a summer session or while they student teach. They volunteer with community organizations, debate urban issues in a campus seminar and build personal relationships with their students' families.
"We're submerging ourselves. We're not reading in a book and getting definitions of what an urban child is," says Sierra Hughes, a junior from Indianapolis. "We're not just learning about, we're learning with. "
The program aims to give young teachers a context for their students' lives, which are often characterized by poverty, harsher living conditions and fewer enrichment opportunities than their suburban counterparts.
"It's easy to base your perceptions on what you see on TV," says Tammy Schwartz, an MU education professor and director of the program who spends a fifth of her time at Rothenberg.
"I want my students to lie awake at night visualizing their students as citizens of the community who believe in their own intellectual capacity and exercise it.''
Schwartz is an advocate for the program in large part because she's a product of Cincinnati Public Schools - a School for the Creative and Performing Arts graduate - and the daughter of a single mom who worked as a waitress and relied on public assistance.
"It's not about rescue," she says. "It's about, 'You deserve what every other kid deserves on this planet.'"
Meanwhile, the program can keep idealistic but overwhelmed young teachers - the majority of whom, nationally, are middle-class and white - from leaving city schools or even the teaching profession.
"Too often you're throwing wide-eyed, enthusiastic young people into an environment that has demographics that are completely different, even shocking, to many of them," says Harold Brown, president of EdWorks, who oversees the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative to transform urban high schools.
"We have to make sure young people are exposed to conditions on the ground because we know the attrition rate is so high in the first three years of teaching."
Studies show a quarter to a third of teachers leave the profession in the first three years, with the highest turnover in poor schools.
Miami senior Rachel Heinzman lives in Over the Rhine while she does field studies at Rothenberg and plans to student-teach in a city school system next fall. She says knowing her students' neighborhood allows her to incorporate more of their world into her teaching.
"If you want to teach in a community that is not similar to the one you grew up in,'' she says, "you need to familiarize yourself with it.
Dorothy Darden, a parents' advocate at Rothenberg, says the program helps future teachers look beyond stereotypes to see the strengths in urban children - and parents. She has invited Miami students to her home for dinner, gone on school field trips with them and, in turn, been invited to one's wedding.
More than 400 Miami students have taken part in some aspect of the program, which they apply for during freshman year. This is the first year when all aspects - seminar, student teaching, field experiences and community living - are in place, with 20 students in the program.
The first students to go through the complete program will graduate in 2012, and program leaders say they will be in high demand by urban districts. Besides Rothenberg, they train in Hamilton and Middletown schools.
Rothenberg third-grade teacher Annette DiGirolamo, who has taught in urban school districts for 17 years, trains Miami students to give urban children extra hands-on experiences, consistent discipline and to focus on positive behavior.
If she had had access to such training, she says, "I would have had to learn a lot less on the job."
"The teacher who's not prepared for the urban experience is totally ineffective, not in control of their class," she says. "Even if they have good ideas, they can't implement them. The teachers who lose their classroom are focused on negative things. I tell the Miami kids, 'You have to celebrate the small things.'"