Propel charter schools, Chatham University want to change the culture of inner-city education with Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Propel charter schools, Chatham University want to change the culture of inner-city education with Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps

“There’s a need for people who have that passion to make a difference in urban schools.”

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Earlier this month, a 9-year-old was shot and killed in South Side Chicago. And around this time last year, a Hill District family was burying a son who was shot and killed on his way to school. 

Unfortunately, tragedies like these are common for some communities in cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh. They tear families apart, devastate neighborhoods and weigh heavily on the backs of students in urban schools. 

Events like these also impact teachers teaching in these communities, many of whom have had little exposure to the kind of violence their students experience every day.

“[Our students’] schools, their communities are impacted by the loss of life,” says Kay Fujiyoshi, an instructor and adviser with the University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program. “As teachers in this day and age, you don’t fully understand what life is like in the city unless you’re willing to live there and think about what it means to be a community.” 

Esteban Sagastume helps a student with math at Propel East. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Esteban Sagastume helps a student with math at Propel East.

Experts say there is a direct correlation between the poverty and violence in urban communities and the low achievement rates of students in urban schools. And that’s the rationale behind the growing number of urban-teaching programs springing up around the country, including Chicago’s.

“We get our [teaching] students to think about the complexities of urban life,” Fujiyoshi says. “Right now, what we have going on in Chicago is a little too much for me to wrap my head around. What children have to face, what they’re exposed to, all of that is really real and awful.”

The promise of these urban-teaching programs is threefold. In addition to training teachers to meet the needs of students coming from communities plagued by poverty and violence, the mission of these programs is to reduce teacher turnover in urban settings where instructors often get burned out. Additionally, many programs make a point of attracting racially diverse talent in an effort to provide more students with teachers who look like them.

Could such programs be the key to addressing achievement gaps between students from urban and suburban school districts? A group of Pittsburgh education experts seems to think so, and this year Propel charter schools and Chatham University launched the Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps.

“Part of Propel’s mission is to be a catalyst for change in public education,” says Randall Bartlett, Propel’s senior director of teacher residency, research, reporting and the arts. “We need to explore and implement new models for teacher education for urban students. 

“What really matters in making a difference in the lives of kids in urban schools are the teachers — the people who are there every day, who pour their hearts into this work. And the more ways we can get the right people into schools to work with children, the better we’re going to do as a country.”

Up until now, LaShawn Neal and Esteban Sagastume were traveling on two different career paths. Neal was working in engineering and Sagastume worked in the classroom as a para-professional and classroom therapist. But now, both are among the 10 students in Propel Schools’ first urban-teaching cohort.

“I feel like there’s a need,” says Neal. “You look at stats on achievement gaps, and I feel like there’s a need for good teachers that have a passion for teaching, that aren’t just there to be there, but really want to see urban students succeed. I feel like there’s a need for people who have that passion to make a difference in urban schools.”

Participants in the Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps program earn a master’s of arts in teaching degree from Chatham after completing four semesters of course work over one year. (Propel asked Chatham to partner with them on the program.) The program is free and students receive a monthly stipend. Participants also commit to teach in Propel schools for the next three years, where each will receive a starting salary of $40,000. 

Their curriculum is centered on culturally responsive teaching, classroom management and, above all, emphasizing the important connection between teacher and community.

Neal and Sagastume began their work with the program in May, taking five courses at Chatham during the summer. Their apprenticeship at Propel schools started in August. Less than three months into his apprenticeship, Sagastume says he’s already starting to grasp what makes urban teaching unique.

“Being an educator goes beyond teaching content,” says Sagastume. “It’s getting to know your students, getting to know their families, knowing what they’re going through at home, understanding what’s going on in that community that may be [impacting] the classroom, that might be coming out in behaviors.

LaShawn Neal works with a student at Propel East - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • LaShawn Neal works with a student at Propel East

“It’s not that you’re coming here Monday through Friday, 7:30 to 3:30, to teach. You’re invested. And it’s something that this program has got me to think about even more.”

Chatham and Propel believe the apprenticeship component of their program — which places their students in urban classrooms during the first year of the program, while they are simultaneously completing coursework at Chatham — is what will make their teachers successful in the long run.

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