STEM and Urban Schools: Opportunities to Escape Poverty's Cycle

Students at urban schools can learn STEM, too.

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Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is the founder of the LEAP University Academy Charter School in Camden, N.J. She is also a Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Here's a heads up to some of the most dangerous cities in America: Detroit, Memphis, Lubbock, Tallahassee.

Despite your problems--too many low income residents, too much crime--it is possible to help children in your communities break the cycle of poverty.

And all it takes is convincing adults to care and believing that poor kids can take an interest in STEM (the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education).

Let me explain. The LEAP Academy--a charter school I founded in dangerous and impoverished Camden, N.J.--began its own STEM curriculum last year. Why STEM? Because this is where we know the jobs of tomorrow are. And people in inner cities need opportunities. More on that later.

Readers of USNews.com are likely already aware of America's STEM dilemma. If not, here is a brief recap.

The supply of open jobs is exceeding the number of qualified professionals to fill them. Technology is already influencing every single career out there. A few fields--computer science, engineering, environmental science, and medicine--are already experiencing serious imbalances. Meanwhile, there is the issue of global competitiveness. America needs to keep pace if we hope to remain a leader in the global economy.

Add it all together, and you have the formula for opportunity. People in the inner cities need real jobs, not hourly wage work. STEM fields need skilled professionals. Sounds like a perfect fit, right?

We think so. It is working in Camden, and it can work in other places, too. Here's how:

Hiring Quality Teachers Leads to Good Instruction

One of the biggest issues in education today: Teachers lack knowledge in the content needed to teach the STEM areas effectively.

Consider this: Close to 30 percent of chemistry and physics teachers in public high schools did not major in these fields and haven't earned a certificate to teach those subjects.

At LEAP, we are recruiting teachers from industry who are scientists first, educators second. For example, our freshman-level science classes are being taught by an energetic woman who holds a Ph.D. in physics. She can earn a lot more money in private industry, but she believes in our mission.

Getting professionals to teach in an inner city is no easy feat since they are not prepared for the task at hand, dealing with the poverty issues.

How do we overcome this? We have created a culture of success, an expectation that every student--no matter how poor--deserves to work toward a college admission.

Furthermore, we offer higher starting salaries for teachers if we are going to recruit them to work in the urban environment. Our compensation model is also based on pay for performance and not longevity. So, we can set up a set of incentives and milestones for teachers to reach. Yes, helping inner-city children achieve their potential can be emotionally rewarding. But that doesn't mean teachers can't receive financial rewards, too.

Develop Partnerships

Our school is affiliated with Rutgers University--a partnership that allows our faculty to tap resources that they wouldn't have access to otherwise. Teachers have access to continuing education, professional development, and professional mentors. For the STEM program, we are partnering with a medical school and hospital in Camden to provide a pipeline for promising students into medical careers. Name any poor urban city and there is likely a nearby university that can help it--the same way that Rutgers has helped LEAP out.

Parental and community engagement has also contributed to our success. It takes every stakeholder working together in a poor city to solve the problems of poverty and poor schooling.

Small Class Sizes and Teacher Development

You're invited to drop by LEAP Academy Charter School the next time you are in Camden. One thing you'll notice is the small sizes of our STEM classes. No more than 18 students. We believe to teach science and math the proper way, you need to allow for individualized instruction. And you can't do that when a class space is overflowing with kids. Furthermore, we allow our teachers to have some autonomy in how they want to teach their curriculum. An informed teacher is an effective one.

Our ultimate goal--making it possible for each and every student who graduates from LEAP to go to college--is met each year as all of our seniors graduate and are enrolled in college. This is almost unheard of in urban schools--but we have proved each year that this level of success is possible.

And, when urban students have a path to receiving a college education, they also will be committed to make the most of that opportunity and earn a college degree. And, a degree in a STEM field is a nice head start for a student beginning a path to a well-paying career.

Rags to riches--it is the American Way. It works in Camden; it can work elsewhere, too.