“Good teaching is like storytelling,”says Sarita Belmont, EdD, associate professor of education. For more than a decade, she’s worked to guide the next generation of storytellers in AIC’s School of Education. But this is only the latest in a long career dedicated to changing and bettering the lives of her students.
Sarita Belmont first got the itch to teach when she was in junior high school, volunteering as a reading tutor for inner-city children in Hartford, Connecticut.
“I just loved it. That experience stayed with me and I realized I could really make a difference, that I could make an impact,” she explains.
Belmont has become a true jack-of-all-trades in her decades of experience as an educator. She can show you how to use your body in interpretive ways as a creative movement teacher, take apart a computer or code as a technology expert, teach you how to read whether you speak English or Spanish as a bilingual educator, or create an entire curriculum designed to bring out the best in everyone. Each step of the way, she’s thought about how she could transform lives.
“Whenever I am looking toward my next challenge, I ask myself, ‘How can I make the biggest impact?’ That has always continued to drive me,” she explains. “I have always believed that as a teacher, one has a gift of stepping back, noticing an important juncture in a child’s or individual’s life, and then stepping in and seeing how you can support them so they can find a direction and see their true capacity. I’ve been doing that with children, with my teachers in a leadership role, and my students here at AIC.”
While looking back on a career of difference-making, Belmont says she doesn’t see herself as a special case.
“When I say that I’m looking for impact, I’m no different than any teacher,” she says. “We all look for the ways to make a difference. That’s why we’re teachers.”
Ever since her undergraduate studies at the University of Connecticut, Belmont has worked to find ways to go above and beyond to improve the lives of her students. As a student, she and her classmates established an after-school program in Willimantic, Connecticut, which intertwined the arts with academics, a fairly new and innovative concept in the 1970s. When she discovered language barriers preventing adequate communication between volunteers, students, and parents, she convinced the university to allow her to study in Mexico to immerse herself in the Spanish language and become fluent.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, Belmont set out with lofty goals of changing the landscape of education. Starting out as a preschool and kindergarten teacher, she and a group of friends were inspired to create their own school that would allow them to focus on developing children not only academically, but in all facets. With that, Mountain Road School in New Lebanon, New York, was established, and Belmont took on several roles—reading teacher, classroom teacher, and eventually assistant director and curriculum co-coordinator. More than 40 years later, the school continues the mission of offering progressive education for elementary and middle school-aged students.
~ Sarita Belmont
“I was very interested in what a school would look like if it was ideal. I spent time volunteering in English Language Learner (ELL) classrooms as an undergraduate, in regular classrooms, and in after-school programs and I saw that it felt like the spirit of creativity wasn’t being fully encouraged in the students,” Belmont explains. “Our discussions were focused on how we could create a school based on our ideals for education. We sought ways to support the “whole child” through designing and implementing a curriculum that emphasized creative, emotional, physical, and social development, and that uplifted children’s spirits in the context of meaningful academics. We had three threads woven throughout the curriculum and that was the arts—and this was before we had the term integrated education—critical thinking, and character development.”
She adds with a smile, “We were optimistic. We were idealists as teachers. We got paid very little. We loved it. And that’s when I began to understand what leadership was.”
Belmont remembers well the day she presented the dissertation for her Doctor of Education degree at the University of Massachusetts. Holding a three-year-old by the hand with a new baby strapped to her front, she wheeled a carriage with five copies across campus.
In that carriage were pages and pages focused on her interest in critical thinking and literacy and a unified framework for teaching critical thinking skills across content areas.
It was groundbreaking work and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) presented Belmont with two Horace Mann Awards that funded the installation of the program in the Holyoke, Massachusetts, public schools.
After her doctoral work was complete, Belmont had a private educational consulting practice, and also worked at the Smith College Campus School as an educational therapist and supervisor of its student teachers. While working in private practice, she was asked to be the research director for a state-funded project examining Irlen Syndrome and Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, which can result in perceptual issues that lead to difficulties with reading. The research centered on the technical use of color overlays, she says, explaining that with the syndrome, text can appear to move or wiggle, and the use of colors can calm these symptoms. Belmont worked with 250 students, spending hours using a diagnostic process to determine the right colors to help them reach heights they didn’t think were possible. Her seminal research design was replicated internationally.
“One student was a fourth grader reading at a kindergarten level. For him, it took two hours to find the right color combination,” she recalls with a smile. “When we found it, he said, ‘the snakes have stopped. I feel like I’ve come out of a cocoon.’ In three months, he went up to a third-grade reading level.”
When her children grew older, Belmont went back to working within a school district and became a reading specialist, reading coach, and literacy coordinator, working in rural and urban schools. It was then that she became an award-winning director of curriculum at the Gill-Montague Regional School District in Massachusetts’ Franklin County.
Gill-Montague was a district in which dozens of educational support staff had been recently laid off and students were facing significant challenges. With a team of teachers and educators, Belmont put into place the Reading First Program and developed a method of data analysis, looking at reading development scores in a holistic way. The program gained statewide acclaim when the majority of the district’s second grade students improved from reading below grade level to grade level and above grade level. The Massachusetts DESE cited the program as one of the strongest in the Commonwealth and Belmont shared practices with educators statewide, resulting in the adjustment in the way some data is examined.
“Again, I started to see where I could have impact. In addition to student success, this was an experiment in team building,” she recalls. “The results were very significant and they were the result of teamwork. That gave me the confidence to know what would work in a challenging school district.”
All of these experiences and more brought Belmont to where she is today at AIC, she says. She sees every stop on her journey as another tool she can use to inspire other teachers and, by extension, help countless students.
“I wanted to have impact on a broader scope and I wanted a broader brush stroke. For each individual, I look for the best in them and try to find how I can bring it out. I decided to use that outlook and teach at the college level,” she explains. “Now at AIC, the scope was even bigger because I am working with groups of teachers from many districts and helping them get in touch with their dreams, their values, their goals. By putting our heads together and by sharing resources and expertise, change can happen in their classrooms.”
~ Sarita Belmont
Belmont joined AIC in 2007 as assistant professor and director of a graduate reading program at AIC that had 80 students. Since then, it has quickly expanded. For her part, Belmont evaluated the program from top to bottom, reviewing its implementation at each of the College’s satellite locations.
“We had reached over 20,000 children,” she says with a gasp. “And many of our teachers are in inner-city schools or high-poverty schools. By teaching our teachers and our teachers teaching their students, we reached 20,000 children and that made me very happy. It was then that I really thought, ‘Wow, I’m in the right place.’”
In 2017, while on sabbatical, Belmont worked in collaboration with Springfield Public Schools to study how new features offered through e-books and improved practices with the technology could impact reading development and motivation. During this time, she developed the ideas that led to her being awarded the $20,000 Francis Dewing Foundation grant to conduct the research. It’s a project that now includes several of Belmont’s former AIC pupils and a pool of 250 Springfield students.
“It’s a project that’s evolving,” Belmont explains. “What if students could read material they’re interested in, knowing they have the support that they need, like a birdie on their shoulder whispering to them the words that they don’t know? This could be a game-changer in closing the achievement gap. This could make an impact on so many lives.”
By Chris Maza :: Photo Credit: Leon Nguyen ’16