Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 6
 
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
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College of New Jersey Program Readies Students for Urban Teaching

Ellen Gilbert

“Our program is where we try to light the flame,” explained Laurence R. Fieber, Recruitment Coordinator for the Urban Teacher Academy, a two-week summer program for high school juniors based at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).

Now in its third year, the program will run this summer from July 7 to 18. During this time, students experience life on a college campus, participate in field trips to urban institutions ranging from a school for autistic children to the Trenton Soup Kitchen, and learn to teach. The program culminates in a day of students teaching young summer campers classes in math, science, and physical education, areas that are particularly under-served by current teachers in urban environments.

During their time in the Urban Teacher Academy program, students learn about child development, urban poverty, and the requirements needed to become a teacher. They meet with area urban teachers, special education teachers, early intervention teachers, guidance counselors, teachers of English as a Second Language, and school administrators. “We don’t sugar coat anything,” commented Mr. Fieber, who described how students are asked to confront their own preconceived notions about the urban environment, racial issues, and their relationships with children. By the end of the two weeks, “barriers are broken down,” Mr. Fieber said, “and students know how to look beyond themselves.”

“We are ‘home growing’ our own teachers,” he noted, pointing out that during the next decade there will be 2.4 million job openings for teachers, with “only one million in the pipeline.” Other states like South Carolina, Louisiana, Arizona, Virginia, Illinois, and Florida have begun initiatives to address this shortage. A former high school principal, Mr. Fieber would like to see New Jersey do the same. “The kids are there,” he said. “It’s a question of tapping into them.”

“Tapping into them” includes consideration of the stories, told in their application essays, as well as their grade point averages. “We’re looking for kids who really feel they have a calling,” observed Mr. Fieber. The program casts a wide net: last year it drew from 26 high schools. “We don’t exclude anyone,” noted Mr. Fieber. “Kids are kids everywhere.”

In its first year the program received 52 applications and admitted 31 students. Last year 46 students were accepted from 130 applications. Mr. Fieber isn’t sure how many places there will be for “the record number” of applicants this year, but it is his hope that the program will be expanded to other colleges in the state, so more students can be accommodated. The program is unrelated to “Teach for America,” a preparatory program for college graduates.

Students accepted in the Urban Teacher Academy attend tuition-free, with expenses for books, materials, food, and field trips covered by a Teacher Quality Enhancement Recruitment Grant awarded to TCNJ by the U.S. Department of Education in cooperation with the New Jersey Department of Education. Each student will also receive a $250 incentive award for the successful completion of the program.

In addition to offering similar summer programs at other New Jersey colleges, Mr. Fieber looks forward to a time when there will be money to make teacher training a regular part of the high school curriculum. Nearly 40 districts have already expressed interest in a pilot program for training “tomorrow’s teachers.” The state’s first “Future Educators’ Conference,” to be held on May 23 at TCNJ, is evidence of the growing interest in training young people to be teachers. Over 250 students are expected to attend the program.

“There’s not a lot of money in it, but there is a lot of reward,” said Mr. Fieber, calling himself “a life-altering kind of guy.” At the end of the two weeks, he said, he tells students who have completed the program, “you all owe me,” and he asks them to send him an email as soon as they get their first teaching job. “If there’s any way for me to get there, I want to come and wish you well.” Even if program graduates don’t go into teaching, he adds, they are “better people” for having been through the training.

The website for the Urban Teachers Academy is www.tcnj.edu/~educat/urban/index.html.

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