Jahmeelah Nash-Fuller went to Agnes Scott College with plans after graduation to go to law school and save the world as a lawyer fighting for social justice and civil rights.
But it wasn’t until she spent this summer teaching in a Brooklyn public school that she realized her path to saving the world may be one classroom at a time.
Nash-Fuller is one of 130 rising college seniors who are part of this year’s Summer Teaching Fellows program at Uncommon Schools. College students come from 27 states and Puerto Rico. More than 80% are people of color and nearly 20% are men of color.
As part of the program, the college students are trained in classroom techniques and then teach alongside a master teacher for the summer. They receive real-time coaching on their lesson plans as well as in classroom management skills. Most of the fellows do so well over the summer that they go back to their senior year in college with a job offer to come back and teach full time at an Uncommon School when they graduate in June.
Uncommon Schools’ program reflects its commitment to increase the percentage of teachers of color in its classrooms. More than 50% of its teachers are people of color, more than twice the national figure of 17%.
The lack of teachers of color across the nation is a vexing problem for all public schools, as well as a meaningful opportunity. A groundbreaking 2017 Johns Hopkins University study found that black students with one teacher of color during their elementary school years were 29 percent less likely to drop out of high school. The impact was even greater for low-income black males with 39 percent less likely to drop out of school.
In New York City, the administration of Mayor Bill DeBlasio in June accepted 62 recommendations proposed by the independent School Diversity Advisory Group to address school diversity. Among the recommendations was the diversification of teachers so they are more representative of the students they serve.
Just 16% of New York City teachers are Latino compared with 40% of the students. While 26% of students are black, only 18% of teachers are black. Asian students make up 16% of the students compared with just 7% of the teachers.
Uncommon Schools is a high performing charter school network with 24 schools in Brooklyn serving over 8,000 predominantly black and Latino children from low-income backgrounds.
“Our Summer Teaching Fellows program has become one of our main recruiting pipelines that’s helping us attract some of the best and brightest college students of color who want to teach in a low-income urban setting,” said Jenny Baxi, senior associate director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Uncommon Schools. “All of our Summer Teaching Fellows share a common passion and drive. They believe that a high-quality education can change the lives of children from historically under-served communities.”
Prince Islam, a senior attending Tufts University, said he always wanted to go into teaching because of the disparities he saw growing up in Jamaica, Queens. Islam said he was fortunate to get accepted into the honors program in his neighborhood middle school, which prepared him for acceptance into Stuyvesant High School, considered one of the best in New York City.
After spending a month learning the craft of teaching, Islam spent five weeks teaching Algebra II to high school students at Uncommon Collegiate High School. The experience, he said, confirmed his desire to teach in a school that serves students from low-income communities. A master teacher was in his classroom mentoring him every step of the way.
“I really enjoyed the experience. Everyone is so passionate about the work they do and they care so much for the students,” he said. “I got to see what makes teaching so rewarding as well as the difficulties that teachers face.”
Nash-Fuller, who grew up in Harlem, said she had always wanted to be a lawyer since she was a young girl. “When I was younger, I wrote about how I’m going to save the world,” she said. “But I took a couple of law classes and I really wasn’t passionate about it.”
Teaching seventh graders English language arts at Uncommon’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Collegiate made her realize that she could have a social impact through teaching.
“I had such a great experience,” she said. “I’m really passionate about teaching and everyone who works there has the same common goal. One of the things that I really love about playing sports is that everyone in that locker room has the same goal in mind and I think Uncommon is the same way. They have picked a set of teachers who are really passionate and on board for changing educational inequalities in this country.”