In Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, there’s a small garden where Syracuse University senior Ashanti Hunter ’22 has helped kindergarteners blossom.
The children attend Community Roots, a local charter academy that utilizes an outdoor learning approach called Forest School. Last fall, they and Hunter visited the park biweekly and spent one day a week in the school’s outdoor classroom. In addition to working on academic content, the students learned the fine art of teamwork, problem solving and risk taking. They also did a little gardening.
Immersive experiences like Forest School bring out the best in kids—socially, emotionally and intellectually, Hunter explains. For those with and without disabilities, outdoor learning can improve self-esteem and sensory function.
Community Roots has inspired me to build my own successful, inclusive classroom. I can’t wait to graduate and get started.—Ashanti Hunter ’22
“Forest School proves there isn’t a single route to success for students with disabilities,” says Hunter, who majors in inclusive early childhood special education in the School of Education (SOE). “Its holistic approach works in tandem with teachers and parents to contribute to children’s growth and development.”
Hunter recalls spending weeks tracking the behavioral progress of one student on the autism spectrum. After gathering and analyzing data, she shared her findings with the child’s parents, who, in turn, implemented her recommendations at home. “The positive results we saw carried over into other areas of the student’s life,” Hunter recalls.
Whether playing tag, making art or adding specimens to the class’s “worm club,” Hunter likes to get her hands dirty, helping diverse students find common ground. “Community Roots has inspired me to build my own successful, inclusive classroom,” says the aspiring elementary school teacher. “I can’t wait to graduate and get started.”
Forest School proves there isn’t a single route to success for students with disabilities. Its holistic approach works in tandem with teachers and parents to contribute to children’s growth and development.—Ashanti Hunter ’22
Sharpening Skills, Broadening Perspectives
Hunter got involved with Community Roots through SOE’s Bridge to the City program, which grants qualified seniors two seven-week placements in New York City schools. Afterward, she student-taught at P.S. 212: Midtown West, located in one of Manhattan’s more diverse neighborhoods. “Ashanti is an incredible teaching candidate,” says Assistant Teaching Professor Thomas Bull G’90. “Experiences like Forest School have enabled her to learn and teach in an exciting and demanding urban environment.”
At both schools, Hunter worked in an Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom, where students with and without disabilities were co-taught by two teachers. George Theoharis, professor of educational leadership as well as inclusive elementary and early childhood education, says ICTs support Hunter’s beliefs and SOE’s guiding philosophy. “Only strong students like Ashanti are selected for Bridge to the City. Co-teaching with different teams in New York City gave her invaluable experience, which she soaked up.”
Hunter particularly excelled at teaching students with autism, ADHD and dyslexia, thanks, in part, to a host teacher at P.S. 212 who taught her the importance of organization and preparation. “She had the procedures and structures in place that made everyone, including me, feel engaged and ready to learn,” says Hunter, noting that 13% of the school’s students had disabilities. “The immersive and authentically inclusive ICT experience sharpened my skills and broadened my perspectives. I also applied what I had learned at Community Roots to the learning environment at P.S. 212. It was transformative.”
Changing the Narrative
Growing up in the Bronx, Hunter witnessed firsthand the impact of diversity and inclusion on learning. She also noticed how forces shaping educational reform, like standardized testing and gentrification, seemed to aid and abet inequality.
This is true at the leadership level, where Hunter has detected a “distinct lack of diversity.” Thanks to a grant from the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE), she and another student have completed a research project called “Pipeline to Educational Leadership Positions for Women of Color.” Hunter focused on diversity among K-12 building and school administrators.
“As a Black women and future educator, I want to change the narrative of women making the transition from teaching to administration,” says Hunter, who co-presented her findings at the University Council of Educational Administration (UCEA)’s 2021 convention in Columbus, Ohio. “My research aims to promote diversity in these roles and provide suggestions for how the experiences of women can be improved.”
Under the watchful eye of Theoharis (who studies, among other things, inequality in educational leadership), Hunter thrice-interviewed multiple principals as well as vice and assistant principals—all women of color. She found that even though female educators outnumbered their male counterparts in schools, the latter were more likely to advance into administrative roles.
As a Black women and future educator, I want to change the narrative of women making the transition from teaching to administration. My research aims to promote diversity in these roles and provide suggestions for how the experiences of women can be improved.—Ashanti Hunter ’22
“The principals I talked to said they struggled with notions of race and gender, that they were perceived as not able to get the job done,” says Hunter, adding that some of them struggled with imposter syndrome. “In most instances, these women drew on their beliefs and philosophies to prove, especially to those in charge, that they’re more than capable.”
The “Pipeline” project also gave Hunter a taste of faculty-led research. The opportunity to collect and analyze data from human participants, a process closely monitored by an ethical review board, was insightful. “I learned how to present my research efficiently and effectively,” says Hunter of her UCEA appearance. “The conference proved that, regardless of my experience, I can do almost anything I set my mind to.”
Surpassing the Standard
Today’s classroom is like none other, as students and teachers brace for myriad challenges, some of which don’t yet exist. For this reason, Hunter’s preparation program, based in SOE’s Department of Teaching and Leadership, vastly exceeds state fieldwork standards.
By graduation, Hunter will have accumulated more than 900 hours of field experience in eight different settings. “She is trained to develop instruction that incorporates multiple learning styles, understands multicultural perspectives and ultimately helps all children succeed,” Theoharis says. “Our coursework emphasizes children and families, multicultural issues, and serious content that engages young minds.
I learned how to present my research efficiently and effectively. The conference proved that, regardless of my experience, I can do almost anything I set my mind to.—Ashanti Hunter ’22
Rounding out Hunter’s education are clinical simulations, academic and professional advising support, and one-on-one mentoring. If all goes to plan, she’ll be among the 98% of SOE graduates working in the field or attending grad school this fall.
“I really want to teach at one of the Bridge to the City schools,” says Hunter, who has five years to obtain a master’s degree to remain a New York state teacher. “I am grateful to professors like George Theoharis and Thomas Bull, both of whom present information with no filter, even though some of it’s rather heavy. They create a safe space for us to learn what we—and our future students—need to be ready for.”