This past summer was a life changing experience for so many reasons, but for the 12 Fellows participating in the National Center for Urban Education’s (NCUE) STEP-UP program, it was a summer of finding passions, creating connections, and committing to urban education.

Housed in the College of Education, NCUE’s Step-Up program completed its 11th summer of preparing future educators from across the University to teach in urban settings. This one-month, intensive immersion program includes three components that students complete within their assigned Chicago neighborhood: a partnership for each fellow with a summer school teacher in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), a project with a local non-profit organization, and an experience with a host family.

“Our mission is to prepare teacher education students, who we call ‘Fellows’, to be successful in CPS classrooms by offering practical urban education experiences that build on what they’ve learned in their classes at ISU,” said Trudi Langendorf, Step-Up program coordinator. “We want our Fellows to discover the importance of the connection between schools and communities, and to have the opportunity to build meaningful relationships in local neighborhoods.”

Typically, the Fellows are moving about their host community and the city every day of the week, building connections and relationships, however, this past summer everything was conducted virtually.

Although the experience could not be in-person, NCUE felt strongly that the program should continue this past summer. Supported by staff, even in a virtual environment, Fellows made strong connections with community organizations and families which helped prepare them for including community resources as part of their future classroom teaching.

“Being able to dive in deep with families in the community where fellows are going to teach is so important in helping future teachers understand the whole student and not just rely on the information they see in the news or find online,” said Matthew Miller, former STEP-UP director.

Robert Wall, senior special education major, completed his second summer in STEP-UP and while he acknowledged that this summer was different, it had some major bonuses. Even though ISU students were not living with host families this year, Wall felt that he was able to spend more quality time with his host family since he wasn’t so tired from traveling all around the city every day.

“One of the biggest pros of the virtual program this year is that we got to have a lot more conversations with our host families,” said Wall. “I talked to my host mom three to four times a week for an hour at a time. I went to her house, got dinner and then volunteered two weekends with her so I got to experience that close family aspect.”

The fellows also had more time to dive into meaningful conversations with each other during daily professional development sessions on a wide range of topics. Many of these PDs were presented by former STEP-UP Fellows who are current teachers in CPS. Topics included: Technology in the Classroom, Service Learning, LGBTQ issues, Positive Discipline, Power and Privilege, and Neuroscience. In response to the racial unrest in Chicago that followed George Floyd’s death, STEP-UP Staff added a two-part training on anti-racism practices for teachers to use in their classrooms. Additionally, during the month, each Fellow participated in three individual conversations with program staff focusing on race.

“Another big pro was that our time with all of the Step-Up Fellows included some great, in-depth conversations, because conversations were all that we had to connect with each other this year,” said Wall. “We had time to focus on anti-racist and culturally responsive pedagogy which was so helpful.”

In each of the five communities partnering with STEP-UP, some CPS students participating in youth programs were paired with Fellows for virtual academic learning a couple times each week. These sessions were particularly helpful for Fellows heading into their student teaching this fall, enabling them to practice and refine virtual teaching techniques, with guidance from staff.

Learning to be adaptable is key for an educator and extremely important for an educator in current times. While the STEP-UP program was different this year, it was well thought out by the STEP-UP team to continue to help Fellows build meaningful connections to Chicago and provide invaluable lessons for all of the Fellows.

While the state of the world in summer 2021 is still unknown, what is known is that no matter the format in which the program happens, fellows will walk away with enhanced practical teaching skills, a deeper understanding of Chicago communities, and a realistic excitement about urban education.

“STEP-UP is one of the main reasons that I want to do urban education. I just really love the community aspect of the program, the different cultures and the people,” said Wall.

Applications are now open for all Illinois State teacher education majors interested in urban education. The application deadline is January 31, 2021 at 11:59 pm (CST).