$1.45 million grant bolsters urban schools

By Gianluca D’Elia 

Finding good science teachers and keeping them in high-need urban school districts is a daunting task, but a $1.45 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program — one of the largest grants Rider has ever received — will help student teachers change that.

The science department aims to use this grant to create a program called STEMerge, which will recruit, develop and deliver a “sustainable pipeline” of science teachers to low-income communities such as Camden, Freehold and Trenton, where teachers are unlikely to stay for more than five years, said Associate Chemistry Professor Dr. Danielle Jacobs.

“There’s something to be said about longevity,” Jacobs said. “If most of your teachers are just novice teachers and there’s always a new batch, you’re not giving your students the best education.”

Thanks to the grant, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) educators will be trained in areas such as classroom management, working with diverse student populations and using civic engagement in science courses, according to Jacobs.

“The grant is allowing for some new things,” Jacobs said. “We will have a focus on culturally-responsive classroom management. Teachers anywhere cite that the most difficult thing in their first few years of teaching is classroom management.”

A lack of STEM educators is a nationwide trend that has been recognized by the Department of Education (DOE). According to DOE statistics, only 16 percent of American students who are proficient in mathematics express interest in a career in the STEM field.

Placing STEM and education majors in districts with an urgent need for quality teachers also provides an opportunity to recruit future teachers that can eventually return to school districts like their own as teachers, said Jacobs. The program will recruit students from Brookdale Community College, Burlington and Camden County Colleges, and area high schools.

“It’s intuitive that where you’re most comfortable teaching is where you grew up,” Jacobs explained. “I grew up in East Brunswick, so if I wanted to teach high school, I would feel most comfortable there or another suburb like it — so it follows that a student from an urban district would be more likely to want to stay and live in a district like that.

“Our idea is that if we recruit from underrepresented populations and put them through the pipeline and deliver them to these districts and put them in these underserved districts, they’ll be far more likely to stay than someone who’s not from that kind of district.”

Jacobs said the pipeline program will also provide induction support through mentorship.

“It’s important to have a network. Anyone [teachers] can use as a soundboard, anyone who can discuss the problems that they’re having, especially ones at urban districts where you wouldn’t find in other districts. We hope to have either Rider faculty or alumni serve as mentors and also for teachers in the district itself, so it would be at least two mentors per scholar.”

The grant will also allow for financial support to student teachers in the new program, which is essential in districts that may not be able to provide funding for classroom demos or even paper copies, Jacobs said.

“The reason we have this grant pipeline is because there are not a lot of great science teachers,” Jacobs said. “The reason I’m a professor is because I had the best chemistry teacher in high school, and I just knew I wanted to study chemistry, and then I had the best professors in college — it’s all about the teachers. Not everyone has that. There are superb STEM teachers out there, but retaining teachers is difficult, and in urban districts it’s even harder. And it’s really not fair that I got this inspiration to become a professor and someone down the road in Trenton may not have had that — it’s unequal access.”

The Noyce Scholarship Program will begin to accept students in Fall 2017, and is available to juniors majoring in STEM and education.

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