College of Education alumna making a difference in Akron city schools
Jacqueline Rohrbeck Ridley’s overall job description and daily lesson plans are as diverse as the classes she teaches and the students she helps in Akron, Ohio.The 2010 Penn State College of Education and Schreyer Honors College graduate is a primary level English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. She serves students through a combination of sheltered small-group instruction and in-class support in the general education classroom through co-teaching.
Her students combine to speak nine different languages and more than 80 percent of her students are Burmese and Bhutanese refugees, she said.
Ridley teaches at the Harris Elementary School in the heart of downtown Akron, at which 99.5 percent of students and families live in poverty and 100 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches. Total enrollment is just over 300, she said, and about 30 percent are English language learners.
“I can’t even begin to list the challenges urban teachers encounter on a daily basis,’’ said Ridley, who is from Devon, Pennsylvania, and attended Conestoga High School. “We’re perpetually under-resourced in every sense of the word, and yet we make it happen.
“As teachers to a high-risk population, we know our classrooms may be the only safe and stable place our students encounter on a daily basis. We also know we play a crucial role in our students’ education.’’
Ridley said the depths of her students’ needs simultaneously motivate her and overwhelm her on a regular basis.
“Every day, teaching in the urban classroom brings the potential of high risk and high reward,’’ she said. “I could be on the verge of tears from exhaustion or frustration when, all of a sudden, one of my students walks in and spontaneously gives me a hug and I remember why I do what I do.’’
What helps enable Ridley to do what she does is experience gained from her curriculum and instruction background in the College of Education. “Looking back, I’m thankful my professors at Penn State instilled in me an understanding of education as a vehicle for social justice,’’ she said. “When I expressed an interest in working with low socio-economic status refugee ELLs, my professors encouraged me to pursue opportunities and experiences that would give me the tools and practical knowledge I would need to be skilled in those areas.
"The academic community in the College of Education only ever encouraged me to cultivate my passion and to take advantage of the opportunities available to me as an undergrad that would ultimately make me the teacher I am today.’’
Ridley took advantage of the opportunity to participate in the Philadelphia Urban Seminar, and she called that experience pivotal in choosing where to apply for jobs.
“My experience at the seminar, while brief, was instrumental in me realizing my passion as an educator for teaching in urban schools,’’ she said. “Through the seminar, I realized I felt the most alive as an educator when working in highly diverse, under-resourced classrooms. This was a tremendous realization, as my prior experience as a student and a teacher had only ever been fairly homogenous suburban and rural settings.’’
As a Schreyer Scholar, Ridley also took advantage of a service learning trip to India. “The HOINA (Homes of the Indian Nation) trip rocked my world as an undergrad,’’ she said. “While I didn’t know it at the time, my study abroad experience in India prepared me immensely for my current work with Nepali refugees.
“Experiencing life in India also prepared me for my future trip to Thailand. This trip also reinforced my passion for working with English language learners and played a huge role in expanding my world view.’’
Ridley entered the job world by working at a college ministry for two years prior to linking in with the Akron Public Schools. She had spent a summer in Akron working and living with Burmese refugees as part of her undergraduate thesis as a Schreyer Scholar. She was a lead teacher at a summer reading recovery program for school-age Burmese refugee English language learners.
“As an educator, this experience crystallized my passion for teaching refugee English language learners,’’ she said. “As a learner myself, working with Karen refugees (an ethnic group in southeast Asia) awakened in me a desire to more clearly understand the unique needs of low socio-economic status refugee language learners. I began to wonder how my students’ experience as refugees impacted their U.S. school experience, and especially their English language acquisition.
“This experience working with students in a more informal setting was also crucial in building compassion and understanding toward my students,’’ Ridley said.
She also visited Thai-Burmese refugee camps on two trips to Thailand. “Seeing the refugee camps for myself was huge for me as a teacher,’’ Ridley said. “I not only have more concrete knowledge about my students, but my compassion and empathy has increased immensely.’’
Since then, she has led professional developments and teacher workshops focusing on life in a refugee camp; she shares knowledge that potentially impacts student learning and achievement.
Despite still being in her 20s, her experience allows her to tell prospective teachers to seek a position in which they feel constantly challenged yet highly rewarded.
“The challenge will keep you on your toes and reinforce your commitment to being a lifelong learner yourself,’’ Ridley said.
“The reward will keep you coming back day after day when the going gets tough. Teaching is no longer – if it ever was – for the faint of heart. What has made the difference for me is finding my niche as an ESL teacher. Every day brings new challenges and new trials, and every day brings the opportunity for incredible student growth and teacher satisfaction.
“The diversity of the urban ESL classroom thrills me, but it may not thrill you. Find your place, find your niche and this will make all the difference.’’
Jim Carlson (January 2016)