Uncommon Schools’ Summer Program Is Helping College Students Become Teachers

Uncommon STF – Daslin Pena
Daslin Pena teaches a class.
Uncommon Schools

Between her junior and senior years at DePauw University in Indiana in 2014, Estrella De La Torre spent the summer at an elementary school in Brownsville as a Summer Teaching Fellow.

At the time, De La Torre had no interest in becoming a teacher, but a fellow student told her it was a cool thing to do.

“My degree was psychology and economics,” she said. “I thought I was going to do something corporate, 9-5.”

One of the first things she saw when she got to Uncommon Schools Leadership Prep Ocean Hill was the morning motivation, when students gather in the gym in what looks like a huge, academic pep rally. Students were energetically sharing what they had learned in the past few days, affirming their peers and talking about their roads to college.

She was impressed by what she saw in the school.

“I grew up in Brooklyn and I never had teachers like this who expected things for me or believed in me like these students were believed in,” she said.

During that summer, she spent time in the classroom under the tutelage of an experienced master teacher who gave her tools to inspire students along with lots of real-time feedback that allowed her to correct her mistakes.

Daslin Pena, Estrella De La Torre and Xiomara Jimenez Rosa.Uncommon Schools

“That summer I failed miserably, I was not good, but I was coached and inspired and pushed,” she said. “By the end of it, I had received so much feedback and so much support that I felt like I really could take it on in my first full year and that’s why I signed on.”

After graduating from DePauw, De La Torre returned to Leadership Prep. She became a teacher and rose quickly through the leadership ranks, ultimately becoming the school’s principal.

This summer, she welcomed four Summer Teaching Fellows into her building, hoping they too decide to become teachers, if not at her school, at one of the other 23 Uncommon Schools in Brooklyn.

The Summer Teaching Fellows program has become a major pipeline for recruiting new teachers, especially teachers of color, and has allowed Uncommon Schools to diversify its teaching ranks. More than 60% of Uncommon Schools educators are people of color.

Xiomara Jimenez Rosa, a rising senior at Temple University and Daslin Pena, a rising senior at Syracuse University, are both enrolled in the program this summer.

Rosa, who is majoring in early childhood education, grew up in North Philadelphia and has wanted to become a teacher ever since she was a young girl.

“As a kid, when you act like your role models, I found myself practicing being a teacher in the basement with my siblings. I was a teacher and they were two students,” she said.

Rosa said being at Leadership Prep has reinforced her decision to become a teacher.

“I definitely do want to go into teaching, and I definitely want to teach the students I’m seeing here — Black and Brown students in low-income neighborhoods,” she said. “You can just tell that here, all the teachers really care for their students’ futures and they just work really hard with them to figure out who they want to be.”

Aaliyah Jones works together with Xiomara Jimenez Rosa.Uncommon Schools

Pena, who is majoring in elementary education with a minor in history, said her experience so far this summer at Leadership Prep has helped cement her passion for the profession.

“Being a teacher is the most rewarding civil service job,” she said. “The simple fact is that you’re helping the future progress. Every day you have the opportunity to change a child’s life with how you teach them. You’re able to form and develop young minds.”

Both aspiring teachers said they appreciated the real-time feedback they received from their mentor, Aaliyah Jones, who has been teaching at Uncommon Schools for three years.

“It’s important for our Black and Brown students to have effective teachers in front of them,” Jones said. “I like learning and teaching teachers my way. What I’ve learned helps them become better teachers.”