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STEP-UP celebrates 10 years of connections with urban communities

three people smiling

(Left to right) Alan Card, Josie Sales, and Erin Hogg. Card and Hogg served as a host family for STEP-UP fellow Sales.

Illinois State University’s Summer Teacher Education Partnership for Urban Preparation, known as STEP-UP, is celebrating 10 years of connecting future teachers within urban communities.

The program is a four-week residency and internship program that places students with host families in Chicago, Decatur, or Peoria, where they assist in teaching summer school classes, serve as interns at a community-based organization, and take part in teacher-training workshops with Illinois State’s College of Education faculty members.

Man holding a certificate

Edward Blanco at the STEP-UP anniversary celebration in Little Village.

Unlike many classroom experiences, the students in STEP-UP immerse themselves in the neighborhoods where they teach. “What I enjoy most about living with a host family is getting the perspective from someone in that community and learning things I wouldn’t just find from a Google search or a news report,” said Illinois State special education major Edward Blanco of Hoffman Estates. Blanco, who is on his second summer with STEP-UP, works with children diagnosed with learning disabilities and autism at Lowell Elementary School in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago.

“Illinois State students who participate in STEP-UP have a deeper understanding of the urban educational landscape, and how to successfully navigate becoming effective teachers,” said Jennifer O’Malley, director of the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline. The program falls under the National Center for Urban Education (NCUE) at Illinois State.

One of the hallmarks of the program is to give fellows the tools to overcome assumptions. “The workshops that the participants attend provide professional development and tools for the classroom and challenge teacher candidates to reflect on their own lives and privilege,” said Associate Professor of Teaching and Learning Pauline Williams, who has been teaching with the program since the beginning and led the workshop, “Inclusive Classrooms for 21st Century Learning,” this summer in Peoria. “The program offers teacher candidates a wealth of authentic learning experiences that they could not receive through their coursework alone,” she added.

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STEP-UP is just one of the programs from the NCUE geared toward greater cultural competency for teachers. NCUE’s Director of Faculty Development and Associate Professor of Special Education April Mustian called the work “paramount” for future educators. “Traditional school norms, practices, and policies are still too closely aligned to white, middle-class culture, and perpetuating that is harmful to students whose identities are not that,” she said. “Communities know their strengths and needs. They are the knowledge keepers, and we are the knowledge seekers.”

I’ve realized that I am a teacher. I am a person who helps students and families acquire knowledge, competence, and virtues. — Josie Sales

Students in STEP-UP gain insight into the hard work of neighborhoods to better the community as well as the challenges they face. “There were situations I never knew I would face as a teacher,” said Josephine Sales, who just finished her second STEP-UP fellowship. During her time in the classroom, some of her students became homeless and their family members faced gentrification, deportation, or prison. “I learned there will be days where you do not know all the answers,” she said, adding that with the support of STEP-UP, other fellows, and community partners, she “found comfort in knowing that I never have been—nor will I ever be—alone.”

Sales resided in Albany Park with host family Alan Card and Erin Hogg. The couple heard of the program through their alderman. “The students are so hardworking, caring, and giving,” said Hogg, who has hosted five STEP-UP students over the years. “Each year we say, ‘We got so lucky to have such a great student.’ Then we realize that they are all great students. You cannot get unlucky!”

Card and Hogg understand the busy schedule STEP-UP students have for the four weeks, but still work to carve out “family” time. “We go to a local BBQ place each Wednesday for dinner,” said Card. “That way we get some time to talk, and the students have a chance to meet people from the neighborhood.” Sales’ fall student teaching placement will only be a few minutes from the couples’ home. “We know we’ll get to see her again,” said Hogg.

two women smiling

Amanda Martin, a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, and her former STEP-UP host, Josephine Jenkins.

Now that years have passed, some STEP-UP alumni are taking in fellows into their classrooms. Amanda Martin, a 2015 STEP-UP alum who teaches on the west side of Chicago, is still connected with NCUE community partner, Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC), where she has the opportunity to mentor STEP-UP fellows each summer since 2017. “This is not an easy field, by any means, but it is worth it,” said Martin. She noted she learned much from her host, Josephine Jenkins. “She introduced me to different ways of thinking and new ideas.”

The flexibility to see new perspective makes STEP-UP graduates all the more attractive to urban school recruiters. “There are not many education programs like this in the country,” said Danny Kim, a recruitment program manager for CPS. “STEP-UP aligns with our mission at CPS to place talented educators in high-need areas.”

“This unique and immersive program opens up a universe to students,” said Dean of the College of Education James Wolfinger. “Not only does STEP-UP broaden the horizons of teacher candidates, but their passion also enriches these communities. Both are changed in positive ways.”

man at microphone

Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, at the STEP-UP 10th anniversary celebration.

Each STEP-UP fellow works on a project with the collaboration of numerous community partners, such as the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation. GAGDC Executive Director Carlos Nelson said the STEP-UP program is a reflection of how education improves communities. “My love for this program and for Illinois State University is immense,” he said. “It fits the desire to develop high quality, culturally competent educators for our urban communities.”

Since its inception in Chicago in 2010, more than 200 Illinois State students have taken part in the program, with nearly 30 students serving more than one summer.

When the program began, Dakota Pawlicki was a recent Illinois State music education graduate. During his time on campus Pawlicki founded a student group called UNITE that connected students studying to be teachers—or “preservice teachers”—with urban schools. “[Former Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline Director] Robert Lee called and asked if I would like to be part of a committee designing a pilot program that would infuse Illinois State preservice teachers into urban communities in Chicago,” said Pawlicki.

The program launched with the help of a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. With the grant in hand, organizers contacted Pawlicki again, this time to ask him to run the program. Already teaching at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, Pawlicki embraced the challenge. “This program’s legacy is that it shows the importance of community in education,” said Pawlicki, who now serves on the Illinois State Alumni Association. “Even those who leave teaching end up being connected to bettering their community.”

National Center for Urban Education Executive Director Maria Zamudio

The program now resides under the NCUE, under the leadership of Executive Director Maria Zamudio. STEP-UP is one of several NCUE programs which aim to prepare teachers to succeed in classrooms. “If teacher candidates do not understand cultural competency, they will not succeed,” said Zamudio. “That is why NCUE serves the Illinois State community, working across disciplines to empower students to understand the importance of how our core values of civic engagement, diversity and inclusion, and teaching and learning intertwine.”

The path to cultural competency is not always an easy one. Programs like STEP-UP can be challenging at times, noted Blanco, but the coordinators encourage professional growth. “The program is meant to make you ‘uncomfortable,’” he said. “We do not effectively grow until we’re out of that comfort zone, and STEP-UP does an amazing job of that.”

woman standing next to a sign that reads William G. Hibbard Elementary School

Hibbard Elementary School Assistant Principal Kyla Bailenson

While the program pushes teacher candidates, it couples experience with support while preparing them for the future. “It’s important that candidates already have a real-life experience of what it is to work in an urban setting with very diverse students,” said Hibbard Elementary School Assistant Principal Kyla Bailenson. “STEP-UP students are teaching in neighborhoods like Albany Park and Pilsen, and getting a lot of support from ISU along the way.”

Bailenson, who graduated from Illinois State in 2003 with a degree in education, teaches in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. The Illinois Board of Higher Education reports that 83 percent of students at Hibbard come from low-income households, and 80 percent identify as Hispanic. Hibbard also carries a 91 percent teacher retention rate, which Bailenson said is a testament to the passion of teachers. “They know they can make an impact and they have support. It’s a full school effort to educate a child,” said Bailenson.

Blanco expanded on this idea, noting it “takes a full community to raise a child.” Drawing on his own experience of growing up in a Spanish-speaking home, Blanco hopes to help families feel more connected to their children’s education. “There was never an interpreter available when there were annual individualized education program meetings,” he said of his youth. Years later, he asked his parents about the experience. “They said they felt ‘stupid,’ since they never had anything to contribute or knew what to say. I hope to teach in a Latino community, so that I can use my Spanish. I never want another student’s parent to experience this type of intimidation or feeling.”

The strong focus on the significant role that community plays in education is key to success, said O’Malley. “It emphasizes the ways in which teachers can work alongside families and community members to improve educational outcomes in urban communities.”

Sales put it simply. “I am not a superhero. I can’t solve all problems and protect everyone who encounters obstacles alone,” she said. “I’ve realized that I am a teacher. I am a person who helps students and families acquire knowledge, competence, and virtues.”

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