Skip to main content

Forging new pathways to urban teacher preparation

Dan Zummo headshot

Dan Zummo ’12

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson’s words of encouragement serve to challenge the reader’s entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. When our nation’s courageous educators become trail makers, they help inspire others.

Through the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline, forward-thinking education majors are pursuing opportunities to receive urban teacher preparation in a four-week fellowship and summer residency program called STEP-UP (Summer Teacher Education Partnership for Urban Preparation) in Chicago’s communities of Auburn-Gresham, Little Village, and Albany Park.

“What makes STEP-UP so powerful is its full immersive experience,” said Robert Lee, executive director of the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline. “Our fellows leave campus and home behind and engage with our Chicago partner communities.”

The nationally recognized program is intense; fellows spend the weekday mornings observing and co-teaching in a Chicago Public School (CPS) summer program with a cooperating teacher. In the afternoon, they work on local service projects with community-based organizations. Fellows also take evening seminars seven days a week.

“Our process is guided acculturation,” said Lee. “We push candidates to challenge notions around race, class, culture, social justice and what these things mean to them. Those topics can be uncomfortable, but we make a point to keep bringing them out, and they are constantly interwoven throughout the program and inherently a part of the communities they stay in.”

During STEP-UP, fellows live with host families who may be retired business owners, political officials, or community leaders and activists. Host families all have deep roots in the community.

“Being able to talk with my host family about the area was great,” said Silvia Castillo, a bilingual education major who was among the 22 fellows who participated in the program. “They have lived here all their lives. They help with understanding the culture and what really goes on in the streets…”

The seminars fellows attend on weeknights and weekends are designed to teach them how to become responsive to new developments in the field.

“We want the fellows to push themselves to learn things that are contextually relevant,” Lee said. “In the seminars, they receive training in areas of national relevance, such as a series in the Common Core, but also those relevant to Chicago or Illinois, including Response to Intervention (RTI). Students learn RTI in an in-depth way.”

Two young Pipeline alumni have become leaders in their Chicago schools’ RTI reform efforts, a reflection of the quality of training the fellows receive.

The program rewards fellows in ways that are immediate and far-reaching. And they experience personal and professional growth.

“It’s a lot of work, from before 8 a.m. until after 9 p.m. every day, but it is important to always be ‘present in the moment,’ because otherwise you can miss the opportunity to pick up something valuable,” said Matt Miller, a junior mathematics education major and 2012 STEP-UP Fellow. “At the end of the day, our brains felt like mush, but … I know having this experience will benefit me during student teaching and once I become a teacher.”

By reflecting upon their participation in the communities, fellows build on their ability to make connections to their students and families inside and outside of class.

“When you come and want to teach in the inner city, your students are going to look at you and think, ‘You don’t know where I come from. You don’t know the problems we face,’” said Dan Zummo ’12, a CPS mathematics teacher who grew up in Lake Zurich. “But when I was able to live in that community, I really got a good feel for the environment and the culture and for people in general.”

Zummo was a 2011 STEP-UP Fellow and returned as a mentor in 2012.

In their neighborhood schools, fellows work with cooperating teachers to develop lesson plans and execute them in culturally diverse, urban classrooms. This practice helps the fellows build confidence.

“The experience in the classroom eased my concerns about relating to students who come from different backgrounds,” Miller said. “I also feel as though it taught me to just be myself with students. You do not have to experience the exact same things as your students for them to know that you care about their success. I think that’s what really matters.”

Developing fellows’ connections to the neighborhoods they serve starts with community-based organizations. The developers of the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline have built strong partnerships with these important nonprofits.

Fellows engage with these resources in the program and learn how to relate this experience to the community where they are hired. Corrinn Cobb, coordinator of the Auburn Gresham Development Corp., said she has witnessed benefits for the community and the educator.

“They know how to bring the community or neighborhood into the classroom, and that provides an even more enriching curriculum for students than they are required to teach,” Cobb said.

“Education is the cornerstone to comprehensive community development, but there are many other areas to address that youth and families are faced with,” Lee said.

“This opportunity gives candidates experience with issues such as health care, government regulation and policy, violence prevention, or combating food deserts. These things fellows see happening in urban neighborhoods allow them to develop another skill set through their service while working together and in tandem with the community.”

That was true for Zummo, whose community work in 2011 at a local boxing ring in Little Village helped him interact with the area’s residents in an entirely new setting.

“In my classroom it’s ‘work, work, work,’” Zummo said. “But my experience with the students was much different at the community center. It was great to see them with their friends and really involved in something. Getting to know them on a personal level outside of the classroom setting was invaluable. Even though they were not my students, in talking with them I realized how many other difficulties and challenges these adolescents and their families face beyond the classroom.”

To help Zummo and other Illinois State University graduates now in their first years working in CPS, the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline program is extending its reach to include induction and mentoring support for new teachers in their first, second, or third years in CPS.

Once every quarter, Illinois State faculty members and CPS urban educators provide new teachers with professional development seminars. The Pipeline also provides resources for new teachers and organizes mentor support to take place at their own schools.

“Few of our new teacher graduates are offered any services for professional development through CPS,” Lee said. “So in addition to these seminars, we also work with our alumni to provide in-building mentors that we also train. For contextual training purposes, on-site mentoring is necessary. Just because someone is a CPS teacher does not mean they understand all the cultural nuances our teachers experience in their school. They can be different from school to school and even from class to class.”

While still in its early stages, the program’s goal is to connect new teachers to professional development opportunities and the resources they need, Lee said. He wants these educators to know they are not alone. Lee said that whether they were involved in a Pipeline training program or not, “our alumni can give us a call, and we will always do what we can to assist.”

Illinois State University’s unique paths to urban teacher preparation break the mold and they are helping to shape the lives of future urban educators and the students they will one day welcome into their lives.


I participated in Dr. Sam Mungo's Peoria Urban Teacher Education Project, 1st semester September 1971-January 1972. It was a cooperative program between ISU and Peoria School District 150. The project included student teaching in the 2d quarter; the 1st quarter had coursework. We also experienced practice teaching at Roosevelt JHS. There were twelve of us (it wasn't called a cohort back then).
We also participated in community projects, including tutoring, a weekend retreat, and assisting with ytroubled youth at the Peoria Mental Health Center. ISU wasn't placing student teachers in the Chicago Public School back then.
It was THE BEST experience I had at ISU, preparing me well for an urban education teaching career in the Chicago Public Schools (Harlan HS, Simeon Vocational HS, and Kenwood Academy HS) and in Bremen 228 (Hillcrest HS).
The STEP-UP summer 4-week program should be a precursor to an expanded one-semester program including student teaching, in the mold of the Peoria Project.