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St. John’s U. School of Ed 100th Anniversary:
An Interview with Dean Jerrold Ross

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Dean Jerrold Ross
Dean Jerrold Ross

As St. John’s University’s School of Education prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, Dean Jerrold Ross has a lot to be proud of. “We have never varied from our original mission to provide access to higher education for people who are first generation college students,” he asserts, adding, “We continue to identify the brightest kids who are economically disadvantaged and provide a high quality education.” Indeed, the university, which is spread over four campuses—Queens, Staten Island, Manhattan, and Oakdale (a Suffolk County site offering only graduate study)—educates a whopping forty percent of students who fall below the poverty level and offers over $100 million in scholarships to them. There’s more: if a prospective student is recommended by his or her building principal or district superintendent, St. John’s will automatically provide a 25 percent scholarship. “We’re trying to come to the aid of school districts who are looking for new leaders and want to promote from within…the schools want us to develop people who know what their communities are about,” concludes Ross.

While the university has remained constant in its support of motivated first generation and low income students, its approach toward educating twenty first century teachers has changed more dramatically in response to the changing needs of today’s student body. Now, teachers must be prepared to work with newly emerging minority populations and children whose first language is not English, according to Ross, a challenge that is the same for school districts in the city as it is for many metropolitan suburbs, other than the most affluent ones.

Teacher retention is another concern in today’s schools that was not on the radar screen a century ago, but Ross and his staff are confronting this ubiquitous challenge head-on. In response to a request from NYC Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein, St. John’s worked with Queens Middle School 216, the George Ryan School, to help retain its teachers and recoup a declining student population that was leaving to attend more successful middle schools. Could a university intervention reverse this tide, posed the Chancellor? “I’m delighted to say that after the first year, not one teacher left,” extols Ross. The formula Ross and his colleagues adopted was deceptively simple: they hosted two summer retreats, one of them fully reimbursed at a per diem rate, to involve teachers, the new principal (Reginald Landeau), and university faculty in collaborative problem-solving. “When the teachers were given a voice, along with the school leader, as to the direction in which the school should go and when they really began to discuss the problems out in the open and work with one another and develop the kind of collegiality that didn’t exist before…it raised the morale significantly,” explains Ross. Ross and his colleagues also opened a new social studies literacy program in the school and this fall, they plan to launch a new center for the gifted and talented under the leadership of new faculty member Suki Cho (formerly head of gifted and talented programs for the Ministry of Education in Korea). Cho will also be doing research under a grant from Korea to compare learning and achievement in Korea and America.

Ross has been a consistently ardent spokesman for the improvement of middle school education, co-sponsoring a series of forums held at St. John’s University last spring that sought to raise the bar for middle school adolescents everywhere. Among recommended changes, Ross highlights the following: provide a greater focus on the whole child; offer up experiences that encourage adolescents to come to school; encourage more parental involvement; adopt a more departmentalized format, where feasible, and a host of others. (The full set of recommendations can be found in a published brochure entitled, “Beating the Odds: Creating Successful Middle Schools.”) Ross is particularly opposed to the current trend toward “the separateness of middle schools”: “It’s important that the teachers in the middle grades know the children whom they are inheriting, and it’s even more important that as they leave the middle grades, there is an articulation with the various high schools to which they would be going,” he adds emphatically.

Ross, a gifted pianist who received his Ph.D. in music education from NYU but chose education over music because, as he laughingly recalls, he didn’t want to practice for the number of hours needed to become an outstanding musician, is rightfully proud of the education his school is offering to prospective teachers. A key component of the curriculum is a required school placement for every freshman education student: “It weeds out those who don’t like it…and they can transfer to another program…but our retention rate is about 84 percent, so most of our students go on and have four full years of experiences in the schools, culminating with the longer student teaching in their senior year…Some of our classes are even held in those schools. I think that’s one of the main reasons our undergraduates are sought after. They’ve had all these years of actually participating in the classroom. It’s unique,” he sums up.

As Jerrold Ross looks ahead to a full schedule of lectures, symposia, and panels that will precede the 100th anniversary dinner slated for September 27, 2008 (a crowd of 400-500 people is expected to attend), he has a lot to celebrate. Recipient of numerous awards (he’s been awarded a medal for Distinguished Achievement by St. John’s and a new Discovery Center building for children ages 6-8 was named in honor of his 36 years as Board President), Ross doubtless will continue to lead St. John’s into a second century of excellence.#



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