By Michelle Armstrong
Jennifer Jones is a woman with a plan--a plan that challenges conventional pedagogical approaches to educating children by creating for them a learning space that is both progressive and learner-centered. She has successfully developed a magnet school for grades K-8 in Miami, Florida where, she says, "students are cared for and loved as individuals."
Growing up in Georgia as one of only two Caucasian students in an African-American high school made Jennifer realize that color often determines opportunity. At the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, she majored in sociology with a concentration in African American studies. She chose to pursue her Master's in curriculum and teaching at TC because "there's no other place on the planet to be" when one considers its urban location and the chance it provides to help individuals learn how to become revolutionaries in the field of education. While here, she worked collaboratively with Reading & Writing Project director Lucy Calkins on staff development programs and also taught at Central Park East, but realized that the latter was not the best match for her interests. A self-described contentious person who "hates to work on assumption" but prefers to ask "why," Jennifer found she needed to leave teaching because of what she calls "the inflexibility of the system" that stifles creativity and does not permit innovative thinkers to move education forward. She saw children defined in terms of numbers in the Harlem school in which she was working without the provision of psychological support despite their individual needs. That, she says, is a recipe for failure.
After completing her M.A. in 1999, she transferred into the Department of International and Transcultural studies to pursue a doctoral degree. Still, her energies and focus were directed toward creating "a new kind of school," and she developed concept papers that outlined her vision. With her coursework completed, Jennifer relocated to Miami, a place that she calls a "vacuum of innovation." Almost two years ago, things fell into place for Jennifer's dream to become a reality. The combination of the financial support of a philanthropist, loans, and a friend's tip about available space in a community center provided her the tools to begin her school. It can service up to 150 students as of current, with one teacher for every 20 pupils plus teaching assistants. An additional grade level will be added each year.
Her students are mostly from disadvantaged economic backgrounds including residents of homeless shelters, but Jennifer does not subscribe to a charitable mentality. She believes that is the wrong approach. According to Jennifer, "Children are complex, sophisticated, and focused on survival." All of her teachers--none of whom have gone through traditional education programs but are trained by Jennifer herself--make certain the curricula taught are hands-on and that children are never asked closed questions, but rather, encouraged to be independent thinkers. The theoretical bases of her school are rooted in Reggio Emelia, Montessori, and Waldorf concepts. Her hard work has paid off in more ways than one. For example, her students were able to visit Washington, D.C. this past year because of the frequent flyer miles she was able to get donated to underwrite the trip. And, enrollment is booming: she receives, on average, a call a day from parents who are interested in enrolling their children. Tuition is $3,500, but those who cannot pay are offered scholarships.
Jennifer is also in the process of launching Pioneer Ed, a non-profit that will provide consulting services and under the auspices of which she will launch a K-2 school in Ft. Myers, Florida as well as a traveling school. The latter will consist of a small cohort of students who will be exposed to fieldwork as an integral aspect of their schooling. The group will soon be visiting Mississippi to study the civil rights movement through interviews and research. The children will also engage in service projects that benefit the communities they visit. Her consulting work has included training teachers in literacy in Kingston, South Africa and in environmental studies in South America, and she has also provided educational consulting in Italy. "The key is identifying people who are on-board with the vision." As if these projects are not enough, it is because of Jennifer's tenacity that a TC alumni club is effectively forming in South Florida. She has spent more than two years contacting those who reside in the area and recently hired a staff person to help build this coalition.
For her dissertation, Jennifer plans to examine how minority students' tendency to underestimate their capabilities influences their choices regarding post-secondary education and ultimately impacts their life outcomes. Despite this research initiative, her plans for now remain committed first and foremost to educating students, and that means her extensive involvement in her schools for the sake of tomorrow's generation. "Human beings seek knowledge in a limited manner because they're taught only one way to do so," she says, "but everyday should be an epiphany."