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In a family filled with military and law enforcement personnel, the young Chicago girl had standing orders to persevere in school.

Sure, as one of two Black students in her entire elementary school class, Siovahn Williams saw the systemic roadblocks. She simply plowed through them.

“Education was one thing people couldn’t take from you as a Black female in a very segregated city,” the Carthage education professor explains. “My way of fighting back was to get smarter. I couldn’t let others think we were undeserving of an education.”

That’s one way to do it. These days, Prof. Williams is cultivating a better way — one that’s designed to remove those barriers altogether.

This feature story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of The Carthaginian magazine.

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An approach that works at a suburban school might flop in the heart of the city. The conditions are different. The demographics are different.

Professor Siovahn Williams, director of the Urban Teacher Preparation Program at Carthage, spends... Professor Siovahn Williams, director of the Urban Teacher Preparation Program at Carthage, spends time at field sites like this one: 21st Century Preparatory School in Racine. Mindful of those differences, Carthage’s Urban Teacher Preparation Program (UTPP) insists on delivering an education that’s tailored to kids’ unique gifts. Prof. Williams directs this distinctive offering, which changes the way teachers are taught.

“Urban education has become a passion of mine,” she says. “I saw the need up close.”

On paper, her dogged effort in school seemed to pay off right away. A bachelor’s degree in business and communications led to a decent-paying position at a real estate investment trust.

While muddling through that day job, however, the young professional caught herself daydreaming about a side gig. She lived for those evenings and weekends, running an after-school program for city kids in the Chicago Park District.

There, success stories were always celebrated — never taken for granted — like the one that still makes Prof. Williams beam when she retells it. Jailed for a gang-related offense, that particular student came straight to her upon his release, determined to complete his GED. He followed through.

“I found that I really thrived when I was working with students,” Prof. Williams recalls. “When I wasn’t there, they were looking for me. It became a very safe place for them.”

So she channeled that energy into a new career.

There in the Windy City, Prof. Williams took her first official steps into the educational field, substitute teaching and managing a college preparatory program for disadvantaged students. After moving north to Kenosha, she earned a teaching license and master’s degree through an accelerated certification program that resembled the one she now oversees at Carthage.

In all, she devoted 20 years to K-12 schools. But there’s a limit to how much one motivated educator can accomplish that way.

Soon after launching the urban teaching program at Carthage in 2016, retired Kenosha Unified district superintendent Michele Hancock recruited Prof. Williams to manage it. When the founder moved into an Executive Staff role overseeing the College’s equity and inclusion initiatives in 2021, Prof. Williams was promoted to UTPP director.

As of last fall, 21 students were enrolled in the program, pairing an urban education minor with either the elementary or secondary education track. The UTPP also has a staff of nine student employees who assist with promotion and events.

To build trust with students, urban teacher candidates typically complete all of their fieldwork in the same school.

Carthage students who do their fieldwork at the charter school receive expert coaching from exper... Carthage students who do their fieldwork at the charter school receive expert coaching from experienced teachers like Samantha Nelson (left) and Amy Baer (right).

“This is designed to give candidates early, prolonged opportunities to learn about themselves and the specific skills they need to teach marginalized students,” says Prof. Williams. “We have to meet the students where they are, and the only way is to immerse in that community.”

Diving in right away as freshmen, UTPP candidates observe classes but also design and carry out a community-oriented event. They gradually take on more responsibility, as experienced master teachers provide practical guidance.

“That’s what I was missing in graduate school: I didn’t have a mentor to make mistakes with,” says Prof. Williams, who earned a doctorate in January from Northcentral University.

Among other things, the program equips future educators with culturally relevant teaching strategies. That’s critical, considering the racial and ethnic makeup of the schools they’re bound to work in.

Working with kids in the assigned classroom quickly debunks any stereotypes that the teacher candidates carry in.

“Once you love your students, you’re able to teach,” says Prof. Williams. “And then the light bulb goes on.”

Sidik Fofana (third from right), an acclaimed writer and high school English teacher from New Yor... Sidik Fofana (third from right), an acclaimed writer and high school English teacher from New York, met with UTPP students and faculty during a four-day visit last April. A concern everywhere, the rate of teacher turnover is especially jarring in urban schools. Hurting the students who crave stability and burning out educators, it’s an unsustainable trend.

“The number of teachers who exit college with all that it takes to survive and thrive in urban education is scary and a bit depressing,” says Thomas Tuttle, an experienced principal in the Kenosha and Racine school districts. It takes “the right heart and grit,” he explains, but also the right preparation.

Mr. Tuttle and other administrators view Carthage as a ray of light. That explains how the UTPP maintains a 100 percent placement rate for jobs or graduate school.

When Cassandra (Millard) Schmaling ’21 enrolled, she sought out a familiar face. Before Prof. Williams joined the College full-time, she taught at Mrs. Schmaling’s middle school.

“She’s very authentic as a professor,” the UTPP alumna says. “She has a lot of research-based material, but she also brings in a lot of her own experiences.”

Now a first-grade teacher at Kenosha’s Grewenow Elementary School, Mrs. Schmaling draws on the wisdom she gained at Carthage about everything from classroom management to parental engagement.

“It’s helped me immensely,” she gushes. “The more experiences we get (in college), the more we have in our teachers’ toolbelt when we’re on our own.”

Impressed that the program aligns with its mission, the William & Sheila Konar Foundation provided a $150,000 grant that funds UTPP expansion through 2024.

Next in Prof. Williams’ action plan? Bring more racial and ethnic diversity to the profession. While public schools in cities primarily serve students of color, more than two-thirds of urban teachers nationwide are white.

On that front, Carthage has a few oars in the water.

Carthage students Katie Drummond ?23, middle, and Essence Christian ?25, right, helped Prof. Will... Carthage students Katie Drummond ’23, middle, and Essence Christian ’25, right, helped Prof. Williams manage the annual Educators Rising event for local high school juniors and seniors last spring. Twice a year, faculty and students host Educators Rising events for high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are considering careers in teaching. It recently expanded to districts in northern Illinois.

Dual credit partnerships with local districts that offer education pathways let high school students in Kenosha and nearby Racine gain early Carthage credits.

A new Pathway to College initiative reaches students even earlier. Faculty and teacher candidates welcomed a few dozen middle schoolers to campus last summer for an overnight camp.

The Accelerated Certification for Teachers program, which Prof. Williams directs, follows a “grow your own” model by recruiting career-changers and recent graduates from other disciplines to teach locally.

Diversity breeds more diversity, so the only nudge some students need is visible proof that a career path is open to them. Along with Prof. Williams, three other local African American educators teach classes in Carthage’s urban teaching curriculum.

Taking up the mantle for the region, the College will convened its first Urban Education Summit in January. Gathering targeted educators from southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois, the two-day event featured workshops, award presentations, and a gala.

The need is too great for anyone who cracks the code to keep it to themselves.

Learn more about the UTPP