His Brother’s Keeper

BROOKLYN, NY– When Jonathan Springer ’11 speaks about his work as a seventh-grade humanities teacher at the Science and Medicine Middle School (M.S. 366) in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, there is both pride and a sense of urgency in his voice.

A participant of Brooklyn College’s Urban Community Teachers (UCT) Project, a program designed to address some of the gaps in learning experienced by minority children, particularly black and Latino males, Springer is well aware of the daunting statistics that directly impact his work.

In 2009–2010, only 37 percent of black and Latino males in ninth grade graduated within four years from New York City high schools compared to the national averages of 52 percent for black males and 58 percent for Latino males. Black and Latino youth make up more than 70 percent of the students punished under “zero tolerance” policies that result in the involvement of law enforcement. Finally, black students make up 17 percent of all public school students in the country, but account for 36 percent of students against whom disciplinary actions are employed even though in-class behavior across racial demographics is roughly equivalent.

Springer, a Brooklyn native who comes from a family of educators, insists that addressing this crisis through direct academic intervention is his calling.

“Education is a way out of poverty for underprivileged African Americans and Latino populations,” says Springer. “The key is in getting my students to value education and that requires me finding a way to make it accessible and relatable, to understand their individual learning styles, which means I must attempt to understand the culture that informs them. That is actually the tenet of culturally responsive teaching, and the basis of UCT’s approach.”

UCT trains and places qualified teachers, particularly black and Latino men, in the classrooms, to meet these goals. Only four percent of public school teachers in New York City are black men. Research has shown that educators who share the race and gender of the students they instruct have a quantifiable positive effect on their students’ academic performance.

Springer realizes that there are significant structural obstacles to overcome, but he says he is up for the challenge.

“Education is a highly politicized field. There is no such thing as neutrality. If we’re just going with the flow, we’re actually supporting the status quo,” says Springer. “UCT has equipped me with the necessary skills to meet the task of operating within the system while also changing it for the better.”

Housed in the School of Education, UCT was created in collaboration with the Empowering, Recruiting, Investing and Supporting (ERIS) Program and the Black and Latino Male Initiative (BLMI) in 2010. UCT continues Brooklyn College’s track record of excellence in training teachers.

According to a 2013 report by the New York City Department of Education, Brooklyn College sends the highest percentage of qualified teachers into the New York City public school system—more than any other university in the state, besting both Columbia University and New York University.

With UCT, the college keeps pace with national trends. This year, the Obama administration announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” a nationwide initiative that will test the strategies designed to improve the academic performances of young men of color.

“We train the students in UCT to be aware of the cultures of the young people in their classrooms,” says Associate Professor Haroon Kharem of the Department of Childhood, Bilingual, and Special Education, who is also one of the program founders. “Our scholars are researching, discussing and understanding culturally responsive pedagogy. When they walk into a classroom, they are fully prepared to put what they’ve learned into practice.”

The faculty involved with UCT are aware of the challenges their students will face once they leave the program and enter the public school system. Teachers of color are 24 percent more likely to leave the profession than their white counterparts because of the tremendous pressure they feel to succeed given what is at stake in regard to academic performances of students of color.

“One of the things we take very seriously is mentorship,” says Childhood, Bilingual, and Special Education Adjunct Assistant Professor Trina Yearwood. “We mentor the scholars in our program and help them understand that the more they teach, the better they will be at it. We provide opportunities for them to hone the particular skills they’ll need to succeed in these situations. That is, via our own experiences with the public school system, we give them insight into the reality of what they will contend with along with the mechanisms to excel.”

While in the program, candidates receive full and partial scholarships, participate in preparatory workshops and biweekly seminars, conduct fieldwork in at-risk schools, and have access to professional conferences and other educational events. The faculty also continues to check in on the progress of its graduates while they are working as teachers. Additionally, the graduates themselves remain in touch with each other and support one another in their work.

Springer says his work as a teacher allows him to wake up each day with a renewed sense of purpose.

“What I try to remember, and what UCT instilled in me, is the idea that we teachers are more important than the pop culture icons in the lives of the kids we’re trying to educate,” he says. “What we are charged with doing, educating young people, is the most important work on Earth. And we have to believe that—for it may be the only thing that saves the world.”

For more information on the Urban Community Teachers Project or to find out how to apply, please contact Project Coordinator Alex Timoll at 718.951.5039 or urbancommunityteacherproject@gmail.com.

Contact: Ernesto Mora / 718-951-6377 / emora@brooklyn.cuny.edu