Nearly 480 students from Penn’s Graduate School of Education will walk down the aisle May 13 at Penn’s 257th Commencement to receive a master’s degree in education.
Four of the graduates, however, were looking for an opportunity to really make a difference for children in the West Philadelphia community, so, they fulfilled part of their academic requirements at the nearby Henry C. Lea Elementary School.
Since January, they have worked as student-teachers at Lea, and along the way, learned a few unique lessons about being a teacher in an urban environment.
They say that working with some of the most underserved students in the city has provided them with much more than just professional development, teaching skills and a firsthand understanding of the challenges that face today’s public schools.
Jackie Kim, 23, decided to become a teacher so that she could do more to help students to reach their educational goals. Originally from Huntingdon Valley, Pa., she spent 12 months performing community service through City Year, an education non-profit that focuses on fighting the national dropout crisis. As a student-teacher, she has worked with Lea 6th, 7th and 8th graders.
Through her City Year experience, she learned a lot about the struggles of “at-risk” students and the barriers they encounter. This knowledge has helped her to better understand the students at Lea -- and it’s contributed to her classroom effectiveness.
“The majority of the students come from an economically disadvantaged background, and they face a lot of obstacles in their educational achievement,” Kim says. “I still have a lot to learn about what takes to be an effective educator, but I have found the moments when the students are really engaging with lessons and learning and growing to be extremely rewarding.”
Recently, Kim taught a unit on identity through figurative language and poetry. It culminated in an “open mic” style presentation. “I felt so proud, watching my students get up in front of their classmates and share their poems,” she says.
Kim believes that a lot of people make assumptions, but never take the time to get to know the students or understand their individual situations. She adds that Lea’s student body reflects the diversity of the neighborhood surrounding the school.
“As an urban school, Lea is able to partner with institutions like the University of Pennsylvania and SPARK! Philadelphia, an apprenticeship program that matches middle school students with mentors in the profession of their choice,” Kim says.
After Commencement, Kim plans to stay in Philadelphia.
Ty Hodge wanted to teach at a school where the students would appreciate her passion and commitment – and Lea certainly fit the bill. She loves working with the 5th graders there.
She grew up on Tortola, British Virgin Islands, and says her mentor’s 20 years of classroom expertise is invaluable, especially as Hodge learns to navigate the waters of public school teaching. Plus, because it was only a few blocks from Penn, Lea served as a convenient location, as she resides in the same community.
“I love living in the same area in which I work,” Hodge explains. “I enjoy seeing first hand where and how my students and their families live, and utilizing the myriad of community assets that exist in West Philly.
“Best of all, it is pretty awesome walking after school with some of my students and getting to know them outside of the classroom and seeing a different side to their personalities.”
After graduating in May, Hodge hopes to continue working in education and possibly join a global-impact non-profit organization that helps students all over the world gain access to education.
Lea is a community-based school, in which many students have siblings, cousins and extended family members who also attend – creating a close-knit feeling among the student body, explains Basking Ridge, N.J., native Abby Foley, 24, who works with the school’s 3rd graders. Foley’s heart glows when seeing her students make strides.
She recalls a young student who really struggled with literacy. As a student teacher, Foley was able to work with him one-on-one for a short time every day for a few weeks. The activity that they worked on together involved the student writing his own story to go along with a picture book.
“I think he even surprised himself when doing this, as his default is to say, ‘I can’t do that’ or ask how to spell even a very simple word,” Foley says. “Throughout the process, he became much more competent at sounding out words. Just yesterday, he wrote a pen-pal letter completely by himself.”
Foley plans to move back to Washington, D.C., and work for its public schools, teaching students in lower elementary school grades.
Working with the students at Lea has added a personal touch to their profession, showing them the determination of young people to learn, grow, and succeed academically. All four student-teachers noted the students at Lea demonstrate perseverance and come to school ready to learn every day, despite the roadblocks in their lives.
For Rebecca Ratnasingham, 22, a native of Columbus, Ohio, the most fulfilling part of her student-teaching experience was getting to know the 4th grade students.
“I enjoyed having the opportunity to develop a rapport with them and learn about them as individuals,” Ratnasingham says. “Through this time spent with these students, it helped me to see how teachers can truly make an impact.
“Not only is it my hope that I inspire my students, but I have also learned through this experience that likewise, my students inspire me.”
She says the reason why she wanted to go into teaching is simple. “I want to make a lasting impression on a child’s life. After becoming more aware of issues of educational inequality in an urban context, I have realized that there is much need in these areas for innovative teachers who can transform students’ lives by providing them with a quality education,” Ratnasingham explains. “My goal is to instill a love for learning in my students, so they can become empowered through education, rising above their circumstances to achieve success.”
After commencement, Ratnasingham plans to return to Columbus and seek a job as an elementary school teacher.
All of the graduates who participated in student-teaching experiences tip their hats to one faculty member at GSE who has been involved with Lea for a long time.
Nancy Lee Bergey, the associate director of teacher education, is a matchmaker of sorts. When students at Penn GSE tell her what they’re looking for in a school, Bergey pairs them up with student-teaching opportunities that might make a good match.
“Students don’t really choose the schools,” Bergey explains. “I try to find schools and teachers with whom we work that are a good match for those wishes. In these cases Lea was the answer.”
Penn’s many activities involving the Lea School, like the “We Can Swim!” program and the special programs with the Penn Museum, reflect President Amy Gutmann’s institutional priorities, including the University’s commitment to local engagement.