A Commitment to Change the Educational Landscape in New Jersey’s Poorest Communities

A Commitment to Change the Educational Landscape in New Jersey’s Poorest Communities

Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education Urban Teaching Fellows coach students about the importance of advocacy


Jackasha Wiley knows what it is like to be educated in an urban public school. She understands that many students drop out and never receive high school degrees. She’s read the news accounts centered on low-achieving, hard to staff schools where poverty, drug abuse, and gang violence dominate the headlines.

Jackasha Wiley, Shine Wann, and Jennifer Turley, recent graduates of the GSE Urban Teaching Fellows program and facilitators in the Youth in Action research project.
But Wiley and more than a dozen other graduate students in the 2011 Graduate School of Education’s Urban Teaching Fellows (UTF) program believe that empowering junior high and high school students from some of the poorest communities in New Jersey might change this educational landscape.

“There are a lot of really good students in these schools,” said Wiley who recently completed the program’s Youth in Action research project, a collaboration between the Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education and urban schools involved in the partnership. “I was an honor student when I went to school in Plainfield, and I want my students to have a positive voice about what is happening in their urban communities.”

This spring for eight weeks, Wiley and 13 other GSE Urban Teaching Fellows – as part of the 18-month graduate education program – spent one day each week after school with students between the ages of 13 to 18 teaching them research skills that they hope will enable these low-income students to feel good about themselves, succeed in school, and become active participants in their communities.

According to Thea Abu El-Haj, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and a co-director of the UTF program, the goal of the pre-teacher training program that culminates with the Youth in Action research project, is to develop a cadre of teachers who are aware of the social and educational inequalities facing minority-dominated urban districts and provide them with the practical experience needed for their entrance into the urban classroom after graduation.

Fundraising for the Urban Teaching Fellows program is a GSE priority in Our Rutgers, Our Future, the university's historic $1 billion fundraising campaign.

More than 60 students attending East Orange Campus High School, Perth Amboy High School, and the Samuel E. Shull Middle School in Perth Amboy, stayed after school each week and took part in research projects examining how students and teachers could be more engaged in the classroom, what influence gangs had on the culture of the school community, how relationships between students and teachers could be improved, and what effect verbal bullying has on a student’s self-esteem. They also looked at how local school budgets are funded.

Among their findings: Gang activity does not affect the overall student population, students have different learning styles, teachers need to be respected, verbal bullying does make a person feel bad, and funding for school budgets is crucial in urban districts. 

“It was up to them to decide what is important, what questions they should ask, and who they should survey,” said Jennifer Turley, a teaching fellow in the Graduate School of Education who co-facilitated the afterschool program at Perth Amboy High School.

The job of the graduate student teacher in this program, said Shine Wann, one of the graduate students facilitating the program at the Shull middle school in Perth Amboy, is to guide students through the process, letting them take the lead as they look for the answers.

This means asking the students to create surveys, conduct interviews, and talk to teachers, students, school security guards, administrators, and others before collecting the information and analyzing the data that they gathered, and then presenting their findings in front of professors and students at the Graduate School of Education.

“It is something that I never did before,” said 17-year-old Tiffany Thornhilo a junior at Perth Amboy High School who hopes to go to college and study law.  “Most students think teachers don’t care about them, but what we found out in our research is that that isn’t true. It’s important for the teachers to understand the best way for students to learn and for students to understand how important it is to be respectful to teachers.”


Media Contact: Robin Lally
E-mail: rlally@ur.rutgers.edu