Blazing new trails: Men of Color Hope Achievers bring diversity, commitment to teaching

Blazing new trails: Men of Color Hope Achievers bring diversity, commitment to teaching

Members of the first cohort of the Men of Color Hope Achievers program celebrate their completion of the program, presented by the College of Education. They have chosen to be teachers in New Jersey schools.

Montgomery Strickland slid his arms into his 42 Long blazer, accepted a handshake and hearty hug from Rowan University Professor Issam Abi-El-Mona and made an exclamation.

“I feel like I won the Masters,” Strickland joked, evoking cheers and smiles as he went down the line congratulating his fellow honorees in the College of Education’s Men of Color Hope Achievers (MOCHA) program earlier this month.

Of course, Strickland, who carries a respectable-though-not-professional-level 14 handicap, would be thrilled to don the iconic green sports jacket, presented to the champion of the Masters, one of professional golf’s most prestigious tournaments.

But, in more ways than can be counted, Strickland already is a winner. Thanks to MOCHA, he’s a professional teacher.

MOCHA video button “What do I love about teaching? Truthfully, the impact I can have,” says Strickland, who was one of 10 men in the first cohort to complete MOCHA, an alternative route program for men of color to earn certification as classroom teachers.

Funded by a $475,000 grant from the New Jersey Department of Education to the College of Education, MOCHA was founded two years ago to help diversify the teaching profession and to address teacher shortages, particularly in central and South Jersey school districts.

I try to impact a kid every day

MOCHA focuses on recruiting, preparing, supporting and retaining males of color to earn their teaching certification to teach in the state’s schools. The initiative, offered through the College’s ASPIRE to Teach program, is for men who already have their undergraduate degrees but wish to pursue teaching.

Altogether, 12 New Jersey school districts are partners in the MOCHA program. Fellows in the first MOCHA cohort currently are high school and middle school teachers of record in Camden, Woodbury, Vineland, Trenton, Bridgeton and Penns Grove as they work toward certification in their content areas through completion of the ASPIRE program.

At their ceremony earlier this month, the fellows received special blazers sporting a MOCHA patch, recognizing them as distinguished teachers and honoring them for their commitment, persistence, dedication and endurance. With an additional grant $455,000 grant from the Department of Education, MOCHA’s second cohort, comprised of 24 fellows, will complete the program next spring.

Strickland, a 2019 Rowan alumnus who earned his degree in physics with a minor in mathematics, is a seventh-grade math teacher at Veterans Memorial Middle School in Vineland.

“I’m never going to win the Masters,” Strickland smiled. “But I do see that I have a really positive impact on the lives of my students. I see every day that just by being a male of color. I try to impact a kid every day. I have a long list of kids I have to reach at some point.”

‘We have to respond to the call for diversity in our schools’

Rowan College of Education Dean Gaëtane Jean-Marie said that’s the goal of the program. Each MOCHA fellow who completes the program commits to teaching in the district they’re placed in for at least five years.

“By attracting more men of color into the teaching profession, we can create classrooms that better reflect the diversity of our student population,” said Jean-Marie. Principal investigator of the grant for MOCHA, Jean-Marie noted that children of color make up more than half of the U.S. student population in elementary and secondary schools. But the teaching profession is far less diverse.

“We have to respond to the call for diversity in our schools,” she said. “Racial diversity benefits every workforce and teaching is no exception. Teachers of color tend to provide more culturally relevant teaching and better understand the situations students of color may face.

“Thank you for responding to the call to be a champion for education and equality and for making a difference in our society and the world,” Jean-Marie told the cohort.

Altogether, nearly 6,000 Rowan alumni work in schools in all of New Jersey’s 21 counties, according to Jean-Marie. She estimates that the 10 fellows of the first cohort, if they teach for 10 years, could impact, at the very minimum, 2,500 students.

‘MOCHA definitely is a brotherhood’

Those are big numbers. But MOCHA fellow Genaro Borrero said he’s all in. Borrero teaches at Eastside High School in Camden, a school he attended when it was Woodrow Wilson High School. He’s chair of the social studies department, teaching bilingual social studies to students in ninth through 12th grades. He’s also an assistant baseball and soccer coach.

“I’m loving every minute of it,” said Borrero. “This was the best decision of my life. I’m happy every day.

“I had zero teaching experience when I began. But MOCHA prepared me for everything I needed for the classroom. MOCHA definitely is a brotherhood. Everyone always is very supportive.”

Education Professor Cori Meredith Brown, co-principal investigator on the MOCHA grant with Professor Stacey Leftwich, said the profession needs teachers who will be true educational leaders.

“The cycle of aspiring—and inspiring—begins now,” Brown told the fellows. “We are abundantly proud of you. And we could not be more honored to stand beside you.”