Scholarships created by TC’s late Board Vice Chair Arthur Zankel have extended the College’s tradition of urban service
By Jonathan Sapers
In his doctoral research at Teachers College, Jondou Chen is trying to tease out precisely how socioeconomic status affects academic achievement. Clearly wealthier kids do better than ones from low-income backgrounds—but why? What are the protective mechanisms involved?
From early on, Chen saw that quantitative data alone couldn’t answer that question. The realization prompted him to join TC’s Arthur Zankel Urban Fellowship program, which arranges service work in New York City schools and nonprofits for TC students who, because they are pursuing non-teaching careers, might otherwise miss out on the rich experience of working directly with young people.
For his Zankel service work, Chen signed on with TC’s Student Press Initiative (SPI), a professional development program that helps teachers incorporate oral histories, writing and publishing into their instruction.
“The very first student I worked with was a young man named Jerry, from Newark, who was incarcerated out at Riker’s Island,” Chen recalls. “He had grown up with his mom telling him that if he didn’t mess with other people, they wouldn’t mess with him. Then one day, on the way home from school, he was jumped by a local gang. That’s how they initiate new members. He joined the gang, dropped out of school and began getting in trouble with the law. It’s that kind of story that helps you understand how, because of poverty and all that goes with it, someone who’s basically on the right track can be badly derailed.”
Today, Jerry, though still in prison, is working on a bachelor’s degree. Chen, for his part, now directs SPI.
The Zankel Fellowship Program is the legacy of the late Arthur Zankel, former Vice Chair of TC’s Board of Trustees, who became convinced that TC could not claim success in its mission if it was surrounded by failing schools.
“Arthur strongly believed that Teachers College should engage with the under-served community in which it is located through direct and ongoing service by faculty and students,” says Martin Zankel, Arthur’s brother. “The Zankel Urban Fellowship program stands as a model of community engagement that he envisioned.”
Zankel initially provided $1 million to create two programs, the Reading Buddies and the Math Buddies, which pair TC students with academically struggling children in six Harlem public schools. After his death in 2005, the College received a $10 million gift from his estate in June 2006 that created up to 50 one-year scholarships, to be awarded annually to both master’s and doctoral students with demonstrated financial need. Now in its fifth year, the Zankel Urban Fellowships enable TC students to work in a variety of city schools and programs under the guidance of TC faculty. There are 13 sites for the 2011–12 Fellowship, including:
- The Literacy Specialist Program (within TC’s Department of Curriculum & Teaching), in which Fellows work directly with children at P.S. 277, a public elementary school in the South Bronx that serves children in the nation’s poorest Congressional district. The Fellows assist in strengthening the impact of inquiry rooms—a unique curricular innovation developed by the school’s principal, Cheryl Tyler, and teachers. Professor Marjorie Siegel is the faculty sponsor.
- UMOJA Readers and Writers (URW), the academic component of the UMOJA mentoring program at Satellite Academy High School. The Zankel tutors engage black and Latino male URW in lively discussions of culturally-relevant texts in their humanities classes at Satellite. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Assistant Professor of Education, is the faculty sponsor; and
- The Young Women’s Leadership Project, in which, three days a week after school, Fellows work with young women on a range of hands-on projects that include college readiness, leadership development and tutoring. Monisha Bajaj, Assistant Professor of Education, is the faculty sponsor.
“The signature of a successful university partnership with local schools and organizations is two-way, mutually beneficial engagement,” says Nancy Streim, Associate Vice President, School and Community Partnerships. “Through the Zankel Fellowships, our community is enriched both by the energy and creativity of our students and by the experience and expertise of our faculty. What we receive in return is even more priceless—a reservoir of experience that transforms our students while simultaneously shaping our curricula, our research and our understanding of the world we serve.”
Nearly 1,000 TC students apply for Zankel Fellowships each year, and the yield is impressive.
“They’re very bright, and they’re very dedicated,” says Emily Zemke, Associate Director, Office of School and Community Partnerships. “These students are passionately committed, to serving disadvantaged youth and aspire to working in the New York City public school system or in nonprofit organizations that serve disadvantaged youth. There’s just a certain type of person who’s attracted to that.”
The Reading and Math Buddies spend two hours a day, five days a week, working directly with children—but the commitment often extends beyond those parameters. Josh Tecchio, a master’s degree student in counseling and psychology, gave one of his Math Buddies his cell phone number for use in emergencies. The third grader promptly called, reaching Tecchio and friends at a party. “He took it as, you’re now my closest friend and you’re number one on my speed dial list,” Tecchio says, laughing.
When they first met, Tecchio says, the boy was “incredibly disruptive—getting in the way of everyone’s learning process and stunting his own.” As their relationship developed—Tecchio was counseled by Buddies’ founding program director Dawn Arno to allow the child to call on Mondays and to require that he have a math question—Tecchio discovered that he was obsessed with basketball. “One day we sat down and I made an origami basketball and we took a milk carton—I actually got this idea from one of the other Buddies—and I taught him fractions by asking things like, ‘How many shots did you make out of the total you took? And it was like a turning point. Math is his favorite part of the day, and it’s spilling over into reading and science.”
The quiet kids, easily overlooked, often turn out to have even more pressing needs. Reading Buddy Vanessa Dabel, 22, had already been assigned four students when another girl asked her for help. “She was having a lot of trouble with writing,” Dabel says. “She knocked on her head with her hand and said ‘There’s nothing in my brain. If you cut it open you won’t find anything.’” Dabel added the girl to her Buddy list and soon discovered that the real problems were going on at home. She focused on self-esteem, telling the girl to sit up straight in class and to stand in front of the mirror and tell herself she was smart and beautiful. By the end of the semester, Dabel says, the girl had begun adding new adjectives to the list assigned by the teacher: words such as smart, intelligent, beautiful, sophisticated.
“It’s not just about teaching them that three plus three equals six,” Dabel says. “It’s really about building relationships so that you can get to know the student. Because you don’t know what they don’t know if you don’t know them.”
But while Fellows often work through one-on-one interaction, they contribute to overall school improvement as well. At Heritage School last year, the TC reading specialists, as part of their master’s theses, contributed insights about teaching literacy gleaned from their experiences. This year’s specialists, Tina Kafka and Jillian Richards, have built on that work. And the Fellows, who hail from all areas of the College, engage in a sharing of knowledge with one another.
“It’s great, because if we were all coming from the same program, no one would be bringing anything new to the table,” says Meghan Chidsey, an anthropology and education Ed.D. student who will become a Zankel Fellow next year.
Of course, there’s one other major benefit that goes with the fellowship: the stipend. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to come to TC if I didn’t get this grant,” said Natasha Bogopolskaya, a Math Buddy concentrating in child psychology. “I love what I’m doing, and I’m glad that with that money comes a task that I enjoy.”
Yet most students say they’d do the program as unpaid volunteers. “The Zankel Fellows are not in it for the grant money,” says Susan Masullo, a lecturer in the reading specialist program who acts as the Heritage fellows’ sponsor. “They’re there really to help the kids.”
And to enjoy something else that’s equally precious, as well.
“For me, the biggest benefit has really been from individual connections I’ve made with the kids,” says Kafka, the reading specialist at Heritage School, who served as a teacher in California before coming to TC. “Especially the ones who are difficult,”
Kafka has been particularly encouraged by her success in breaking the ice with a ninth grade girl who has presented a number of behavior problems. Recently, given a chance to spend time with Kafka and others in a special separate group in the library, the girl not only accepted but also uncharacteristically completed a required assignment— writing three sentences. “I’ll be sitting next to her—she has these big hands—and she’ll just tap the middle of the back of my hand,” Kafka says. “She’s making a connection with me and I can’t make a big deal of it,
but I know.”
For others, the Zankel experience may even be a career changer.
“I never thought I’d want to work in a high school, and now I think I might,” says reading specialist Jillian Richards. “It hasn’t scared me away.”