Cool to do well in school
Curry students present ideas for closing the minority achievement gap
Photo by Dan Addison
By Anne Bromley
With 70 to 100 students in the capstone course on contemporary educational issues, assistant professor of education Scott Imig wondered how to make the most of the students’ enthusiasm and accumulated knowledge. He took an idea from business schools where the students work with real companies on real problems, and got his students working with a real “client” — a local school — on a real problem.
For two years, Imig has asked local middle school administrators “to share a problem they are wrestling with and would like to have the brainpower of 90 future teachers address.” Buford Middle School this year and Walton Middle School last year have taken him seriously.
Buford principal Tim Flynn and assistant principal Kristin Spicer chose bridging the minority achievement gap for their topic, a big issue with which most school systems are wrestling. Flynn said the school has been working on this for at least four years, and he was glad to have new sets of eyes look into what else could be done. The school still is working on getting full accreditation.
The Curry students’ ideas convey the message that it’s cool to be smart and do well academically. The activities they suggested include expanding mentoring programs, using different methods like reward systems to raise academic expectations and providing teacher training in certain areas.
“I walked away thinking some of these things are fabulous,” said Spicer, who added that it’s great to work with U.Va. Of course, she might be biased — Spicer earned her master’s degree from the Curry School. She and Flynn said Buford has worked with several U.Va. programs, including the “Day in the Life” and Young Women Leaders mentoring programs.
The U.Va. students worked in groups of seven or eight and spent two months conducting research at the school, as well as in the library. Imig said he stressed the importance of gathering research on the problem. With 1,300 education schools in the country all involved in pedagogy, the project was a good opportunity to check out the latest research. That also helps the administrators know the ideas are based on good information. The student teams also conducted interviews, surveys and focus groups with students, teachers and parents. Finally, they gave presentations and submitted reports to the school, as well as to Imig for their grades. In April, the students presented their ideas on closing the achievement gap to not only Buford administrators, but also principals from all Charlottesville schools, plus acting superintendent Robert Thompson.
“There were some creative ideas,” Flynn said, and even some that might not be feasible were thought-provoking and sparked other ideas. “The graduate students came to Buford and ‘embedded’ themselves. They spent time here face-to-face with the stakeholders. The best presentations were research-based.” The reports gave the educators new ideas, and they reinforced some of the positive efforts that have been made so far, Flynn said. He has asked academic teams to study the reports and pinpoint programs that would complement Buford’s school plan.
The students’ programs suggested bringing in mentors for the middle-schoolers from Charlottesville High School or from the University to provide social and emotional guidance in addition to academic tutoring. Another program involved setting up a career center with a counselor who would help students, and even parents, make career goals and see what they need to do academically to fulfill them.
Flynn mentioned that one of the Curry students got so interested in Buford that she began working there as a substitute teacher. Ragan Collins also involved her sorority by holding an all-night lock-in program with 30 seventh- and eighth-grade girls.
“Mentoring and role models have a tremendous influence,” he said.
Some programs focused on nurturing motivation and responsibility for getting good grades. With the help of teachers, students would create their own individual plans to work consistently, accomplish academic goals and stay out of trouble. The students would be involved in monitoring their progress. Flynn said he thought that idea was an empowering one that’s concrete and doable. Other ideas ranged from offering after-school academic clubs to students keeping journals about their academic experiences.
Several ideas tackled racial tensions by incorporating time for students to get to know each other better. One Curry team pointed out that the achievement gap was part of a larger social gap and that wearing uniforms would level socioeconomic differences. Because white and black students often end up separated by academic achievement in slightly different curricula, called “tracking,” a couple of the plans would group students heterogeneously in some classes besides reading and math, and give teachers specialized training for teaching mixed groups of achievers. Another plan would use the homeroom period for regular discussion sessions.
Imig reminded the audience, “In a few short months, they [the students] will each have their own classrooms and students. Conservatively, these students will teach over 2,000 pupils in the next year alone — their impact will be great. Understandings they take away from this project will help to guide their practice and certainly enhance the quality of teaching in their classrooms.”
Experience validating for teacher-to-be
“I absolutely fell in love with those students,” said Ragan Collins, of the Buford Middle School students she worked with and then substitute-taught this spring. “This experience showed me how important it is for the students to know how important their success is to you as their teacher. … Getting to combine the training I received from the Curry School and the experiences that I have had with working with children over the past eight years of my life reaffirmed for me that I am entering the right profession and that I am equipped to be an effective educator.”
Collins and the Curry student team she was part of chose to focus on creating a college and career center at Buford. She said they conceived the place as serving both the students and their parents. Students would be able to get information about their interests and learn about making future goals. Their parents could learn more about their children’s interests and get information for their own educational purposes.
“We felt that many of the motivational issues for this age group stem from not having a concept for why school is important, even in middle school, for achieving their futures. So many of the students had told me about wanting to go to college, but their academic performance in middle school was not going to allow them to be automatically placed in the college preparation track in high school.”
Collins will start teaching first grade at Henrico County’s Ratcliffe Elementary School in August.