Rowan program aims to bridge gap between aspiring teachers and urban schools

Getting into Rowan’s Urban Teaching Academy (RUTA) requires about as much work as the average college application. But students of the academy say the experience is worth the lengthy application process.

Now in its fourth summer, RUTA accepts 26 high school students entering their senior year and introduces them to the challenges and experiences often found in urban teaching over a 10-day period.

“The main goal of the program is to expose students to teaching,” said Steve Farney, assistant dean of Rowan’s College of Education and part of the team that put the program together.

Rowan’s education department occasionally sees education majors in their sophomore and junior year who realize they “don’t want to be bothered with kids,” he said. So RUTA gives aspiring teachers a chance to see if teaching will be a good fit for them before spending thousands on a degree program.

Rowan also has a “long standing commitment to urban education,” said Dr. Cori Meredith, assistant professor in the College of Education. Many new teachers do not have the “acumen” for urban education because many teaching programs don’t expose their students to urban settings, she said. RUTA students experience urban teaching as undergrads, well before many college students.

Through the summer reading programs at Cooper Learning Center and Head Start in Camden, RUTA students spend four and a half days “devoted to close interactive connections” with urban elementary school students, Meredith said.

RUTA does not follow a traditional academic structure, she continued, but they do “extensive planning” for their days with Camden students.

“We really want RUTA students creating, designing and planning” lessons so “students feel competent and confident,” and prepared to make changes as needed to deal with any unexpected events or personalities that might crop up during the sessions.

RUTA not only gives aspiring teachers a chance to see what it’s like to be a teacher, it shows them that a teacher can make a difference in the lives of their students.

Eugene Marrone of Runnemede, a student at RUTA this year, says he wasn’t interested in school during elementary school. It wasn’t until his fourth grade teacher showed him “it’s worth putting yourself out there” that he began to work in earnest. He hopes to become a math teacher so he can “try and make a difference” like his fourth grade teacher did for him.

Before starting RUTA, Marrone said he did not understand the impact urban teachers can have. One thing that struck him was when someone said, “you can’t change some things but you can change something.”

“Everybody has the potential to become something,” he said, regardless of their school setting.

Maya Holmes of Newfield says it was a fourth grade teacher who inspired her as well.

She “made things fun,” especially for subjects in which Holmes was generally less interested.

Though she does not have a Spanish background, Holmes hopes to become a Spanish teacher because she loves the language and the culture. “I love kids and I want to make a difference,” so teaching is a natural fit.

Fourth grade is an “important time period in a student’s life” because they begin to realize that “people other than their family can have an impact on their life,” Meredith said. “That’s one of the most important reasons why we pair RUTA students with elementary students… because getting students is so critical” in that stage.

Merideth says the response from the Camden program has been very positive.

Since this is the fourth year of the program, many of the summer reading students have “grown up with RUTA students” every year. When she visits the Camden schools during the school year, Meredith says the students will ask her for their RUTA friends by name, “is Josh coming back next year? Is Katie coming back next year?”

RUTA students have a “powerful and profound impact that they don’t fully recognize until the end of the program,” she said.

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