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Exclusive Interview with Dean Jerrold Ross, St. John’s University, School of Education

By Dr. Pola Rosen
Transcribed by Yehuda Bayme



Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Dean Jerrold Ross, has been the dean of the School of Education at St. Johns University for nineteen years.  St. John’s is a school that is located in Manhattan, in Staten Island, in Queens, which is where we are located right now, and…where else?

 Dean Jerrold Ross (JR):  We have branch campuses in Oakdale, which is out on Long Island, and in Paris and Rome.

PR:  Dean Ross, it is an honor to be here today with you. One of the things we want to talk about is what distinguishes the education school compared to others around the city and indeed around the nation?

Dean Jerrold RossJR: Let me separate that into two parts: the undergraduate programs and the graduate programs.  At the undergraduate level, we place our students in the school setting from the day they arrive.  It’s not a matter of waiting until their senior year when it may be too late; when they don’t like the position of being in front of the room instead of in front of the desk and it is too late for them to change.   They have gained all of the experience of four years of the schools on top of their courses so that they are really prepared for the full extent of student teaching.  Upon having graduated they are on the lists of principals who call us regularly to send our graduates because they know they’ve had all this extra preparation.  On the Staten Island Campus we do even more than that.  We place all students, in addition to the school work, in a not for profit agency that has to do with working with children.  It may be a health agency; it may a judicial agency; it may be an agency that has to do with children with special needs.  We do this so that they get the full picture, the full complement of services that are available to children over and above the schools.  This way they are familiar with these agencies in order to be able sometimes to refer parents to where their children can get additional help.  At the graduate level, over and above the regular programs; the regular offerings of master’s degrees and doctoral degrees, we are actually very well known for our programs that certify teachers through alternate means.  The last rating of the Department of Education that came out about ten days ago, placed us at the top of all of the schools of education in the city in both the content and knowledge of our students and in their retention.  Ninety percent of our students entering the city schools as teachers are still there after three years. It is an extraordinary figure.

PR:  Congratulations.  What do you attribute that success to?  And by the way, I cannot help but notice on your desk it says “Dr. Jerrold Ross, Demon Director”.  Is that why those people are so successful?

JR:  The “Demon Director” has nothing to do with me recently and in fact nothing to do with education.  Early in my career when I was the chairman of the music department at NYU, the chancellor asked if I would take a look at Town Hall which was owned by NYU and was doing very badly.  Lincoln Center had just opened and all of the traditional concerts and recitals that had been held at Town Hall, which you had to have if you were going to be a professional, had moved up to Lincoln Center.  So I arrived at a hall that was virtually empty and had to create programs and recreate the image of one of the best acoustical halls in the world all over again.  When The Daily News, in addition to The New York Times, did stories about this, the reporter from The Daily News said to me, “no one expected that you would become such a demon director” referring to Town Hall.  It had nothing to do with education.  

PR:  So what is it that enabled your program to be rated so highly? We have been criticizing a lot of education programs in the last year. Our children are falling behind and indeed our ranking as a nation has fallen way behind, certainly behind Norway, Sweden and China.   So what have you been doing that spells success?

JR:  I attribute this to the motivation of the faculty.  The faculty is not appointed to this school unless they demonstrate before they come here that they have been involved directly in the schools and that they will continue to do so.  We are a research institution as well as one involved in practice, but we are not so tied to research that our faculty look from above down at the schools and study them and say something about them.  The research they generate is derived from the practice that they themselves bring into the schools in working with teachers and students.  They know how to model lessons.  They know how to prepare students who are coming from other fields into education for the first time.  They know the strategies, they know the theories, but they also are very well up on all of the changes that are going on in higher education these days, with the rolling out of the new certification regulations and the common core.  They have really worked hard at not only understanding the philosophy and the content of these, but in enabling their courses to change so that they can reflect translating those standards into practice.

PR: How has the common core curriculum changed the programs in teacher preparation?

JR:  It is a distinguishing factor of this university. It involves students for the first time in the study of great literature and important math and science, but even before that came about, I sent a memorandum to every faculty member on the Queens campus of St. John’s and asked if any of them would be interested in helping us as we took a new look at our courses.  This involved faculties from the college of arts and science, from the college of professional studies, from the college of business, and from the college of pharmacy.  Thirty seven faculty from across the university, full-time professors, volunteered to help us change the content of our courses and look at the way we teach in another way.  I remember the remark of the dean of the college of arts and science who felt the response was remarkable.

PR: Here we are talking about curriculum and common core.  I couldn’t help but notice on the wall behind you that you have a high school degree from La Guardia High School of Music and Art, which happens to be where I went to high school.  I went for music and I believe you went for music as well.  And then you have another accreditation from the American Association for Music Therapy.  I would like to explore that a little bit with you, but let’s talk about music education for a moment.  The common core and some of the other accents that have been put on education have deleted the music and art curriculum in our city.  There are people like Laurie Tisch who have attempted to bring it back.  What are your thoughts on that?

JR:  Well I think it is a tragedy that the arts have not been mentioned in the rollout of the common core.  It reminds me of the federal law that was created when John Brademas was almost in charge of the House of Representatives and we had to fight that the Arts disciplines be included in the disciplines that were to be emphasized in the schools.  They weren’t there either back then.  We won that battle, but that was years ago.  Now it has come up again in another form.  The common core eliminates the arts which, as I said before, is a tremendous mistake.   It is arts that illuminate the areas that the common core is seeking to prepare children to understand better.  What more can the world produce than the work of artists who reflect to society, or lead society in history, in literature, in language, in incidentally many times in sciences and math and certainly lately in technology?  It is through the arts that these disciplines are learned best.   Unfortunately it is something that many educators these days don’t understand because they themselves have not been introduced to the arts at a very early age.

PR:  Jerry, what can we do about it?  How can we bring the arts back?  Because I feel the way you do.  It has been such an integral part of my life and has added such richness to the tapestry and fabric of my life.

JR:  I wish the media would pay more attention to the work of the committee chair with the Department of Education that is supposed to oversee the arts in the city schools. A committee was formed, I was asked to join it and then was elected by the committee as its chair.  On September 19th, I will be presenting the report of the fourth year of the work of this committee on the progress of arts in the city schools.  And in spite of a very talented group of administrators and those who fashion the arts programs and who understand what the arts can do for children, the funding for the arts has diminished and the number of teachers has greatly diminished.  So my report this year to the Department of Education’s leadership group, called the Panel on Educational Priorities, will cite this decline as one that should not be sustained by the new mayor.  They are actually addressing our comments to the new administration in the hope that whoever slips into that role will become a champion of the arts.

PR:  We at Education Update are very interested and will want to pay close attention to your report.  What are some of the programs that you have here at St. John’s for different learners; for special needs learners? Do you have a music therapy program here?

 JR:  We don’t have it here.  Actually the music therapy program in New York City was started by me at NYU when I first became music chairman there and we were looking for different things to do.  In those days, music therapy was just beginning to be noticed by physicians and those who attended to people who had special needs.   So we created a program that was unlike any other across the country.  It was the first to be introduced in a major city at a major university.  In order to do that, we had to establish our own accrediting agency, because the one that existed didn’t really care very much about urban populations.  So what you see over my head is the citation from what became the American Association for Music Therapy whose interests were in urban problems and urban settings for those for whom music can really, and still does, make a major contribution to the amelioration of all sorts of physical and emotional troubles that they may have.

PR: I am amazed sometimes when I have read and seen personally in hospitals, people who have suffered a stroke or other handicapping conditions, and they are able to understand, love, listen to, and respond to music.

JR:  Well if you saw “The King’s Speech” then you may remember that when music was playing in the background, and he was asked to speak, there was no stuttering or stammering whatsoever.  Music has that ability to connect with the mental processes that control thinking and the physical apparatus that goes along with the need for improvement in speech, improvement in motion, improvement in understanding and in hearing and making academic connections.

PR: Is there a program like that here?

JR: No, we don’t have that here, because we don’t have a full-fledged music department, but is still flourishing at NYU under the same director that I hired. 

PR:  Terrific.  Is there a special Ed program?

JR:  Yes there is.  It is a very large one and growing.  In fact we receive heavy funding from external agencies that enable us to recruit students so they won’t have to pay too much tuition, because of the quality of the faculty and the placement of the students in schools where almost nobody else will go.  St. John’s since 1870 when it was founded has concerned itself with the neediest students, and that’s where we send our graduate and undergraduate students to work and to learn and to practice.  And they are hired.

PR:  Jerry, is there anything else that you’d like to discuss that I haven’t asked you?

JR:  Yes, I think the most pressing issue in the state and in the city at this point is a disconnect between those who make policy and those, like us in schools of education, who have to carry it out.  Our voices are not often heard and our pleas for the kind of success that has recently occurred in Massachusetts of spelling things out in a way that will enable teachers and children to absorb all of this new content and this new approach is not the path that we are going down.  It is too rapid and I think it will have the unintended consequence when children see their scores, of causing more of them to drop out because they are already discouraged.  We should have planned more carefully for readying them for the tests and readying teachers to prepare them for the tests.

PR:  I couldn’t agree with you more.  Who were some of your mentors?

JR:  Well, take a look at me and you can see by this point that many of my mentors are no longer with us.  Actually some of them are on the wall opposite me.  They include a great music education professor, a great nun who was in charge of the Sacred Heart School of Liturgical Music.

PR:  Did you study there?

JR:  No, but I used to lecture there.  Another was a great woman who wrote a wonderful book about music and movement for children.  I co-authored one with her.  And finally, one who was beloved as a music theory teacher but she knew more about educating young people than most other educators.

PR:  What instruments do you play?

JR:  I have played piano all my life.   I was a student at the Juilliard Prep School and I actually had a choice:  Did I want to go to Juilliard to become a performer? They were willing to admit me and I would have studied with Rosalyn Tureck.  I had to audition for her  or did I want to become a teacher?  And I wanted to become a teacher.  So I went instead to NYU rather than to Juilliard in those days.  Preparing to become an instrumental music teacher then meant that I had to learn to play all the instruments, but my secondary instrument was the cello which reminds me of Danny Kaye’s comment about people who play the oboe not wisely and not well.

PR:  Well, I bet you are much better than that.  Last question, do you have a favorite book that is sitting at your bedside or are you reading something on the Nook?

JR:  I like to read about history and figures in history.  The ones that I am concentrating on now are Roosevelt and Churchill with a few of the other American presidents thrown in.  But the key figures in shaping history in their day and actually in shaping the English language when it comes to communication were Roosevelt and Churchill.  So that lately I am reading about Roosevelt and the Holocaust and Churchill’s complete history of the First World War that is considered to be the greatest history of war ever done and which helped merit him the Nobel Prize.  When I retire I would love to pick up the cadences of these writers and eminent statesmen.

PR:  Sounds wonderful. Thank you so much for letting us come; it has been an honor to be here.

JR:  Well I thank you, but it’s been an honor to appear on the pages of Education Update or in any form associated with it.#



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