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Bright Students, Big City: Philadelphia Urban Seminar is a Transformative Experience

Posted on 2/12/2018 11:01:59 AM

For many students, the first few weeks following the close of the spring semester are spent returning home, relaxing, and attempting to forget the school year. For those participating in the Philadelphia Urban Seminar, however, the first few weeks of summer are a transformative experience embracing education and, sometimes, inspiring career paths.

The two-week immersion program places education students in Philadelphia schools to observe and assist in classrooms. Participants stay in La Salle University’s residence halls and are driven to and from their assigned schools by participating faculty via van. Classroom assignments match each student’s concentration. Students participate in professional development sessions in the afternoons and, after dinner, meet with faculty from their school to debrief the day and discuss issues related to urban education. Sometimes students return to their respective schools for nighttime events, and weekends are spent participating in community service projects.

On Memorial Day, when Philadelphia schools are closed, all participants go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Constitution Center, researching available resources for long-distance learning or in preparation to take students there on field trips.

The Philadelphia Urban Seminar has proven to be invaluable for providing urban classroom experiences for pre-service teachers and a better understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand in the School District of Philadelphia.

“Students have no idea what it means that the School Reform Commission had taken over,” said Colleen Poole, Field Experience Coordinator, who oversees Cabrini’s involvement in the program. “They don’t realize that politics is involved, and to what extent, and policies and finances are involved. They approach urban school districts and outcomes from a perceived deficit model, that things aren’t great, and the students aren’t succeeding, and the teachers don’t care, and parents aren’t involved. It turns out to be just the opposite: They have to limit the number of parents who can go on field trips, the teachers are using best practices, the students are energetic in the classroom. Students start to realize the complexity of the issue, it opens their eyes. Students go from saying, ‘That’s not somewhere I want to teach’ to saying “I want to go back and teach in a big, urban district, I want to teach in Philadelphia, I can make a difference.’ ”

Participants are exposed to more than just the issues, they form real and valuable relationships with teachers, with other participants, and with the children in the classrooms.

“Being in the Philadelphia school district made me realize how much these teachers do to keep their students on track,” said Shenylka Fowles-Lord (‘19), a 2017 Philadelphia Urban Seminar participant. “My teacher was always on top of her game with homework and getting things done on time.

“It made me realize how much these kids want to learn and become something in life,” said Fowles-Lord. “On my last day, I cried. I didn’t want to leave my students. You have grown a relationship with the students and want to stay with them forever.”

For the schools, the program provides an injection of enthusiasm.

“Teachers love the extra set of hands,” said Poole. “To host someone in the classroom at that point in the year, it engages the kids again, they’re excited to see a new person, the teachers are invigorated. It’s a fun two weeks, and the energy just builds again.”

The Philadelphia Urban Seminar, pioneered 27 years ago at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has blossomed from its humble beginning with 26 student participants into a formalized program between the School District of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education with more than 400 student participants.

Cabrini has been participating in the program for 11 years, and the Philadelphia Urban Seminar has even gone international—Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and Haige University, both of the Netherlands, also participate.

“It’s a tremendous program that really impacts our students,” said Poole. “Participating students become better global citizens. They become aware of things that they’ve never experienced, and they will be a better advocate for the students that they do have. It’s really about advocacy and being knowledgeable as a teacher about the things outside the classroom that may impact your job and your students’ success.”

2017 Participants:

Kerri Anderson ('19)
Lelia Dawson Haines ('19)
Shenylka Fowles-Lord ('19)
Ben Giordano ('18)
Brian Jordan ('18)
Jemima Nelson ('17)
Emily Shannon ('19)
Myonie Johnson-Williamson ('19)