Uncommon Schools Creating Pipeline of Teachers of Color in Brooklyn

crystal sanchez

Crystal Sanchez is captivating her audience of sixth graders, asking deep questions about a particularly rigorous section of the novel, Lord of the Flies.

The students raise their hands at every question, excitedly leaning out of their chairs to share their thoughts and opinions. When they get too excited, Sanchez gently, like a teacher with years of experience, reminds them to listen to their classmates.

This is summer school.

But the fact that students can be so engaged in a discussion about literature on a hot summer day isn’t the most interesting thing happening in this classroom at Uncommon Schools’ Ocean Hill Collegiate. Instead, it’s the fact that Sanchez is not at all a veteran teacher. In fact, not too long ago, she was a student at an Uncommon school herself.

Entering her senior year at State University of New York at Albany in the fall, Sanchez has decided to spend the summer teaching with Uncommon Schools, the largest public charter school network in Brooklyn, from which she graduated.  

“The biggest lesson that I learned from Uncommon is that when my teachers showed me that they cared about me, I I did much better in the classroom and was excited to come to class,” Sanchez said, describing how her own student experience has impacted her goals as a teacher this summer.

Sanchez is one of 155 rising college seniors who are trying out their teaching skills at Uncommon Schools this summer in various locations, including Brooklyn. Uncommon Schools manages 52 schools in three states and serves 18,000 students, over 7,500 of them in Brooklyn.

Every year, Uncommon Schools scours the country for rising college seniors like Sanchez who are bright, enthusiastic and committed to teaching in urban areas.   A growing percentage of these college students are graduates of Uncommon themselves.

More than 500 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 155 fellows.

The program is born out of the notion that students benefit from seeing themselves in the teachers at the front of the room.

Assemblyman Nick Perry

“We know that it’s so important for our children to see themselves in their teachers and Uncommon’s program is an effort to bring more young people from our community into teaching,” said Vivienne I. Bent, the education liaison for Assemblyman N Nick Perry (D-East Flatbush, Brownsville, Canarsie).

According to a study of 100,000 black students by the Institute of Labor Economics released in April, having at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent and significantly increased their chance of aspiring to attend a four-year college. For low-income black boys, the results were even greater — their chance of dropping out of school fell 39 percent.

Uncommon isn’t the only school system addressing this issue.

In January 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio, launched a $16 million program aimed at putting an additional 1,000 men of color on course to become NYC public school teachers over the next three years. At the time, the city said that while male students of color make up 43 percent of NYC’s public school demographic, only 8.3 percent of the entire teacher workforce is made up of black, Latino and Asian men.

Nearly 80 percent of the Summer Teaching Fellows are college students of color, reflecting Uncommon’s commitment to teacher diversity.

The fellows received training for several weeks in May and June before getting a taste of the teaching profession in Summer Academy at Uncommon’s public college-prep charter schools in Newark, Brooklyn, Troy, Rochester and Boston.

At Uncommon, 53 percent of its New York City teachers are people of color, more than double the national average of teachers of color in public school classrooms, and substantially higher than the percentage of public school teachers of color in U.S. urban areas.

State Sen. Roxanne Persaud

The aspiring teachers in the program “form a rich tapestry,” said Lateef Turral, senior constituent liaison for Senator Roxanne J. Persaud (D-Canarsie, East New York, Brownsville, Mill Basin, Sheepshead Bay, Bergen Beach, Marine Park, Flatlands, Mill Island, Georgetown, Ocean Hill). “This program will enable bright, talented individuals to make an indelible mark as they hone young minds and foster strong character within the classroom.”

Hanging on the wall at the back of Sanchez’s classroom is a quote from Maya Angelou that reads, “When you get, GIVE; When you learn, TEACH.” The quote is especially fitting for the aspiring teachers like Ms. Sanchez, who can’t wait to embark upon a full-time teaching career when she returns to Uncommon after graduation.