If you’re a student at Newark Public Schools, a job with the district is guaranteed to be waiting for you – as long as you graduate from the Red Hawks Rising Teacher Academy and earn a teaching credential from Montclair State University.

The academy, a partnership between Montclair State University’s College of Education and Human Services, the Newark Board of Education and the American Federation of Teachers, began with planning sessions in 2018. 

“If you are an inner-city kid and have a guaranteed job starting at $62,000 the minute you complete graduation, that is legit,” said Victor Fernandes, school to career coordinator at East Side High School. “For a lot of these students, their parents are not making that much.”

The program serves students at East Side High School and University High School, which worked with their partners to develop a curriculum as a prelude to dual enrollment classes, which juniors and seniors take. Those dual enrollment courses kicked off in the spring of 2022, said Michael West, vice principal at East Side High School, who serves as a key coordinator along with Fernandes at University High School.

As of February 2023, there were 88 students enrolled in the program at East Side, including 50 freshmen, 9 sophomores, 18 juniors and 11 seniors. 

Amir B. Billups, department chair of social studies and career and technical education at University High School, noted his school recently had about 90 students in the program, including about a dozen seniors.

Asked how many students have stuck with the program since it began, West observed that at East Side, about 18 students started the program as freshmen, so he’s pleased that more than half still see teaching as their future. The retention rate at University High School is comparable, Billups said. 

Students get exposure to the teaching experience starting in freshman year, visiting elementary schools in the district. For instance, freshman students at East Side regularly go across the street to the Ironbound Academy Elementary School. They participate in a book buddies’ program with younger students. 

East Side sophomores help the special needs population at New Jersey Day Regional in Newark and juniors visit Oliver Street School. “They are working with younger students on fire prevention strategies and building lessons,” West said. And the school’s seniors visit Lafayette Street School as part of a Montclair State University’s entry-level teaching course, which requires them to complete a set number of hours teaching in a classroom. “At every level, they are getting exposure to real classrooms,” West said.

Students can start taking teacher academy courses at any time, Fernandes emphasized. 

“You don’t have to start your freshman year,” he said. “We are constantly plugging in kids who show an interest. The success of this program is based on getting as many kids as possible to go not just to Montclair but to school and to put them in the best possible position to go out and succeed.”

“Our superintendent, Roger León, executive staff and leadership team had the vision of looking 10 years down the road to be able to provide these types of opportunities to support the growth and the future of our education system,” West said.

Billups noted the program runs the same way at University High School, with students getting classroom experience before taking dual credit courses. Getting the chance to earn college credits is a “driving factor” for many students and parents, he said. The seniors at his school carry out work at Michelle Obama Elementary School as part of their Montclair studies.

East Side already has a number of former students who have returned to the classroom as educators, which “makes a huge difference,” West said.

“They know the building and know the culture of the community,” he said. “You are a real role model for students – and continuing that is really important as we continue to be a community school.”

With its diverse student body, the most successful teachers have certain features – and it’s easier to check off those boxes when you come from the community, Fernandes said. “At East Side, we have a tremendously large bilingual community,” he said, noting that many students speak Spanish and Portuguese. 

Trying to find educators from outside the community to teach students who are bilingual or who don’t speak much English can be much harder than “tapping into what you already have,” he said. “This is a program that fills all those needs,” he said.

Billups agreed that when you get students to come back to teach where they came from, the benefits can be huge. He added that his high school’s principal, Genique Flournoy-Hamilton, “represents exactly what the program is all about.” She was a student at the school before rising to her current position, he said, adding she fully supports the initiative and has contributed to its success.

“There are cultural assets that come into play when you have teachers who attended the school as a student – they can speak so much more to the experiences of the students and can leverage those experiences as they work with young people,” Billups said. “With that being said, we want kids to enter this program and see it not just as a career path in education but as a way they can give back to their community. They can be compensated at a decent wage at the end of it, but the focus is on giving back – and being an educator is one of the best ways to do that.”

A Passion to Teach As of May 2023, the first and only Newark student from East Side to have successfully completed the program was Melissa De Almeida, who attends Montclair State University. She has opted to continue on her desired path of becoming a teacher.

At University High School, Najmah Johnson also graduated from the program and also attends Montclair, but she opted to apply the college credits she earned toward a major in communications and media, Billups said. She is minoring in education.

Although she decided to pursue something other than teaching, Billups noted that for Johnson, the program still paid dividends, as it enabled her to earn college credits and positioned her to succeed at Montclair. “We don’t tell people that they have to just commit to teaching, but they get exposure to all different facets of education – and that allows them to make an informed decision,” he said.

The 18-year-old daughter of Brazilian immigrants, De Almeida lobbied to take the academy’s curriculum when she was a high school senior, even though dual credit courses were being introduced for the first time to juniors.

The program seemed tailor made for her: She already knew she wanted to be a teacher, she was hoping to attend Montclair State University and her dream was to eventually land a job teaching at Oliver Street School, where she attended elementary school.

De Almeida earned six college credits while in high school, and then she took summer classes with her fellow high school juniors in the program to earn six additional college credits. “I was the only one from my high school to graduate with college credits from Montclair,” she said.

Although she did not earn the 30 college credits that students who began taking Red Hawks Rising courses as juniors could earn, she was the first East Side High School student to graduate from the program. She received a plaque honoring her achievement.

Asked why she wants to become a teacher, De Almeida noted that her parents had a tough time raising her older sister, as they could not speak English and at that time, there were few teachers who could communicate with them.

“My sister went to school in her gym uniform and had her school pictures taken like that,” she said. “My mom regrets that to this day.”

The problem, she said, is that no one tried to communicate with the family in their native language, Portuguese, about all that was going on. “With those struggles in mind, my mom waited a little bit before having me,” she said. “My sister, who is 10 years older than me, spoke English already. She had gone through the hard part, and she helped me with everything.”

De Almeida also received help from her teachers, including her second-grade teacher at Oliver Street School, who stands out to this day.

“She is the reason I want to come back to Newark and teach at Oliver Street School,” she said, noting that the teacher has since retired and has no clue she made such an impact on her.

“She was my favorite, favorite teacher – she doesn’t even know how great she was in my life,” she said, noting that the teacher’s name was Ms. Castelo Branco.

The reason the teacher was so special is that she spoke both Portuguese and English and kept her students engaged. She taught how caterpillars turn into butterflies, and she made students hand-squeezed lemonade. “The little things she did in her teaching still stick with me today,” she said.

De Almeida’s sister, Gabriely De Almeida, overcame the obstacles she faced and coincidentally works for Newark School District as the operations manager for a preschool with the head start program, having graduated from Montclair State University. “I share her experience, so that others know they are not alone,” De Almeida said. “When my sister needed help with homework, my parents would go to our local church or to neighbors to see if they could help them out. There are parents today who might still be struggling with that.”

De Almeida has already signed a provisional contract with Newark, Fernandes said. “So, when she graduates from Montclair State – as long as she meets all the requirements, she has a job,” he said. Those requirements include completing all the necessary MSU teaching education program degree requirements and exams as well as New Jersey Department of Education teaching licensure requirements. “While the starting salary is at $62,000 now, our contract expires next school year, and it will likely be higher. Down the road, in Melissa’s case, by the time she is done, there will be a new contract,” he said.

De Almeida, who regularly volunteers at Canaã Church in Newark, said, “I’m happy with wherever God takes me or wherever I go, but my heart is really set on Oliver Stret School.” She added, “But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’m happy with wherever I go in Newark.” 

De Almeida has been the program’s “No. 1 cheerleader,” West said. “She has gone through the entire East Side process – she has gone through the teacher academy course and the dual enrollment courses. She is a first-generation college student.”

De Almeida – and other future Newark graduates like her – are meant to serve as ambassadors for the academy, Fernandes said. “We definitely want our graduates like Melissa working with future graduates – kind of like a support system,” he said. “We don’t want them to feel like once they go to Montclair, we’ve forgotten about them. Melissa is very involved, and she continues to be involved in the program because we make it a point to check up on her.” He continued, “Newark has never really detached itself from students; we want to maintain contact, so that when they are done, we are the option and they come back, find employment and teach here.”

De Almeida is enjoying her role as an ambassador for the Red Hawks Rising program. “I feel sometimes as if students won’t ask questions when there is an administrator at the front of the room,” she said. “They may feel scared or uncomfortable. But having a student who went through the process recently, who understands the struggle and who lives in Newark, they might feel a little more comfortable talking to me and asking those questions.”

Montclair has done an amazing job supporting De Almeida and the Newark high school students involved in the program, West said. Likewise, the American Federation of Teachers has been a great partner, he said. “From the president, all the way down to our contact, they have been extremely supportive with everything we need,” he said.

Billups agreed, noting, “They have been stellar partners.”

In February 2022, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, was joined at East Side High by Jonathan Koppell, president of Montclair State University, and León (who earned his Master of Arts in administration and supervision from Montclair) to announce that the AFT would award a $1,200 stipend to students in the program in spring 2022 and a $2,500 stipend for students enrolled over the summer of 2022. 

Dyan Smiley, associate director, educational issues, with the American Federation of Teachers, said the stipends were provided “because we wanted to take one thing off their very full plates.” She added, “We know that after-school jobs are often necessary for students to help with family living expenses, and some will opt out of the program for this reason. It is my opinion that New Jersey should seek to have the program recognized as an apprenticeship and receive federal dollars for students to earn while they learn.”

“It’s a very true partnership where everyone is a stakeholder and everyone is involved in the decisions that take place,” West said. He added that the district’s program coordinators meet weekly with representatives from the university, the American Federation of Teachers, as well as the board of education.

“The board has been 100% supportive of this program and the superintendent’s vision of having a teacher academy,” West said.

New Jersey needs more Grow Your Own programs like the one in Newark, Smiley said. “The teaching profession has gone through its share of peaks and valleys, but this season brings about a canyon,” she said. “The pandemic exacerbated teacher shortages for a host of reasons, but even before the pandemic, national surveys revealed the crisis mode of the profession. Young people have many options as they consider workforce careers, but teaching remains at the bottom of the list if it makes the list at all.” She continued, “Many students, and in particular, students of color, are not spoken to about the profession. Individual kids are not tapped on the shoulder and told what they currently demonstrate that might make them a great educator in the future. All stakeholders must do their part to not only talk about the profession but to do the work to change perceptions.”

One of the reasons the Red Hawks Rising program has been so successful, Smiley said, is that all the partners – Newark, the American Federation of Teachers and Montclair – are fully committed to the participating students. “The partners meet weekly – without fail – to plan and respond to any issues that may arise,” she said. Our commitment to the students and to each other has brought us our success with the program, so indeed we are looking to replicate this model in other locals.”

Dr. Mayida Zaal, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Montclair, serves as the university’s co-director of the program with Danielle Epps, director of admissions, recruitment and diversity in the teacher education program. The program makes college more affordable for participants, she said. 

The next cohort of students will be able to earn 30 college credits – and they can do that without incurring any debt, she said. Once they have earned 30 college credits (and have turned 19), they can apply to be a substitute teacher, which can aid them in paying for college while gaining additional exposure to the teaching profession. They can also work as paraprofessionals, she said.

Nine out of the 10 dual credit courses are 100-level courses that can be applied toward general education requirements, she said. “At Montclair, those credits can be applied to any major they choose,” she said. “If they decide to go to another institution, we hope those credits will transfer because they are general education credits. The very last course is a 200-level course that anyone can take but that also serves as the entry-level course into the teacher education program.”

Of the 23 Newark students in the program scheduled to graduate in June, 20 of them had applied to Montclair State – and all were accepted, Zaal said. “How many will enroll? We will see come September – and how many will pursue a teacher education remains to be seen,” she said. “We know getting into teaching is not always a straight line. Some start off thinking that teacher education is the way to go and once in the program decide to pivot – and for other students, it’s the other way around. So, we want to make sure we keep that door open. They may consider becoming a teacher and enroll in our master’s program or somewhere else down the line as career changers.”

Whatever the Red Hawks Rising students choose to do, she hopes they will keep the focus on giving back to the community. “Even if they never come back to the classroom or work for a public school, we want them to see themselves as being agents of change,” she said.

Growing Interest Interest in the program from students and parents continues to grow, West said. “When we go to our elementary feeder schools, we do talk about our CTE academies – not only our teacher academy but our graphic design and video programs,” he said. “Parents are learning about the opportunities. Also, with our bridge program with incoming freshmen, they receive information about the various programs at East Side … little by little, the program is gaining speed.”

While the goal is to have Newark students go through the program, graduate from Montclair and return to the district, the true measure of its success will be whether students continue their education and ultimately succeed in their chosen career, West said. “We want people to be fulfilled and satisfied and give back to the community. That is kind of the overall philosophy,” he said. 

Asked what other districts focused on growing their own teacher pipeline should do, West said, “It’s really important to have good people and good partners collaborating together. Not only that, but they must make the commitment. Nothing is perfect, but we are able to talk through what we need to do to solve those issues.”

De Almeida remains committed to going back to Newark as a bilingual teacher. “I’m very certain of my decision,” she said. “It’s definitely my plan to go back and do something in my community. It’s exactly what I want to do.”

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.