Eighteen Newark high school students spent six weeks of their summer break on the Montclair State University campus, taking courses that will help prepare them for college. The students, members of the Red Hawks Rising Teacher Academy at University and East Side high schools, participated in the program’s summer academy.
Each morning the students would meet up at their schools and, after having breakfast, travel by bus to Montclair for a day of learning. In addition to their Fundamentals of Speech and Introduction to Computer Concepts classes, the students’ days were filled with in-person sessions with success coaches, learning about campus resources and college life. They also found time to play and bond over volleyball in the quad. Once a week, they attended virtual evening tutoring sessions with their success coaches.
During one event with members of the African American and Latinx caucuses, students networked and put their communications skills to the test. Psychology Professor Saundra Collins encouraged the students, telling them: “We are all seeds of greatness. The goal is to push you into something greater than you are.”
The summer program is an integral part of the Red Hawks Rising Teacher Academy, a nationally recognized partnership between Montclair’s College of Education and Human Services, the Newark Board of Education and the American Federation of Teachers, which aims to help build a locally grown, diverse teacher workforce.
Danielle Epps, the director of Teacher Education Admissions, Recruitment and Diversity at Montclair’s Center of Pedagogy who leads the program with Associate Professor of Teaching and Learning and Academy Co-Director Mayida Zaal, says Montclair is developing long-term relationships with students at both Newark high schools beginning in ninth grade when they join the Red Hawks Rising Teacher Academy. Montclair provides curriculum and professors and participants earn college credits.
“We really believe that by building meaningful relationships and supporting the students through the program – what we call our ‘community of commitment’ – will make a difference in terms of them completing their college degrees, whether they decide to pursue education,” Epps says.
East Side High School student Zeana Fortes says she was glad to participate in the summer academy. “The program has been really supportive of us. We’re able to build relationships with our teachers and with our professors.” Success coaches provided guidance with assignments, and students learned valuable skills, such as time management and note-taking.
Bryan Miranda of East Side High School says he wasn’t sure he’d interact with people outside of those he already knew from his school but discovered he had things in common with others. “I’ve been able to boost my confidence and speak better in public,” Miranda says, adding that he also picked up some new computer knowledge and shortcuts.
Miranda, who wants to attend Montclair next year and major in History, is thrilled that the students who meet qualifications and complete the Red Hawks Rising Teacher Academy are guaranteed entrance to the University. “This program is wonderful,” he says, noting that he is considering becoming a history teacher.
At first, not everyone was excited about giving up their summer break for summer school.
“My immediate thought was, ‘there goes the summer,’ but by the third day, I was set. I am happy to be here,” says William Ruhno of East Side High School. “The people I’ve gotten to meet from University and the experiences and opportunities that have come because of this program, I’m very thankful for all of it.”
Destiny Bethea, a University High senior, agrees. “This is one of my last summer breaks. I don’t really have adult responsibilities right now, and I’m choosing to come to college,” she says, laughing. “I’m grateful nonetheless. It gave me more insight and knowledge into college, so I’m glad to be here.”
Najmah Johnson, who starts her first year at Montclair, says she’s introverted and that the speech class especially took her out of her comfort zone. The Communications and Media major and Education minor did well on two required speeches and is looking forward to her first on-campus semester with 12 additional credits under her belt: “I am very excited and can’t wait to start the school year,” she says.
Many of the students are still unsure if they will pursue teaching as a career.
Ruhno says that he and his fellow students know the summer academy will help them with any chosen field. “There are so many things that are vital for any career that you choose, like public speaking, making connections and networking. So basically, this is preparing us for life.”
Fortes says she’s torn between teaching and nursing. “But either way, I’m changing people’s lives, and that’s really what I want to do in life.”
Zaal says the overarching goal is to help the students succeed. “Whether you want to become a teacher is really not a criterion for participating in the program because ultimately, they’re going to be very strong consumers of education, they’re going to potentially have the tools that they need to become advocates for change in educational systems in their communities,” she says, adding that “they could potentially teach or work in the school system in other capacities.”
Ultimately, she says, “retaining them in the college experience and giving them the opportunity to persist through college is a really important part of the work.”
The rising Red Hawks take pride in being among the first cohort to participate in the summer academy. “I feel blessed to have this chance to be in this program and be one of the first,” says Bethea. “So, I feel like I’m also helping those future students.”
That was a sentiment echoed by Ruhno. “I’m excited to see where this program will go in the future. To be part of the group of pioneers who started this and who helped form how it’s developing. It’s crazy to think about how much of an impact that we can have on the program itself.”
Bethea says she will urge future Red Hawks Rising Teacher Academy students to participate in the summer program. “I will tell them, I know it’s summertime and you want to have fun, but you also have to consider your future.”