College of Education Students and Alumni are Making a Big Difference at a Little School
On April 4, elementary students and their families along with staff from Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, visited Penn State. This is the sixth visit students from the school have made to University Park as a part of the special relationship between the two institutions.
“Penn State is part of the lifeblood of Sheppard,” said James Otto, principal of the elementary school, whose respect for the University is evident when speaking with him. “Our school probably would have closed if it had not been for Penn State.”
Ten years ago, Otto was assigned to Sheppard to close down the school, which he describes as a small, rather insignificant elementary school in a challenged urban neighborhood. During his second year as principal, in what he terms a fortunate accident, Penn State found Sheppard. From there, the institutions established a partnership, which Otto credits for helping Sheppard rise above people’s expectations for the school.
According to Otto, Penn State has continually offered outstanding student teachers and support to his school.
“The College of Education does a fantastic job preparing [students],” said Otto. “Every semester we get a new batch of student teachers who, year after year, make us better.”
In addition, there are a number of Penn State alumni who work at Sheppard.
“A lot of my staff graduated from Penn State. Three of my current teachers were student teachers from Penn State,” said Otto, again citing the quality of students coming from the College of Education as the reason for hiring.
Keeley Gray, a 2008 elementary and kindergarten education graduate, is one of those current teachers. She is a third-grade teacher at Sheppard who fell in love with the school when she completed her student teaching there. She sees her students growing with weekly online tutoring sessions via i-chat between students at Sheppard and volunteer students from the College of Education.
“I am involved in i-chat for third and fourth grade,” said Gray. “[My students] get homework help and extra help they need academically. It is also so great to see them have someone else to talk to and form relationships with.”
Stephanie Ironside, a secondary education major and online tutor, said she thought becoming a tutor was a great opportunity.
“Having this experience with the younger kids is benefiting me in educational psychology and adolescent development. It is making me more well-rounded as a student,” said Ironside. “I think it is a great experience. I recommend it.”
During their visit to University Park, the students from Sheppard get to meet and spend time with their i-chat tutors in person as they tour the campus, which this year included stops at the Berkey Creamery, the All-Sports Museum and Beaver Stadium, and the Nittany Lion Shrine as well as exposure to college dorms and classrooms. According to Gray, this experience helps put the idea of college in students’ minds, one that is a viable possibility for the future.
It is also an eye-opener for many parents who visit the campus with their children.
“For a population for whom the terms ‘college’ or ‘university’ are not part of their lexicon, this is just a remarkable experience,” said Otto. “We have brought anywhere fifty to sixty children here over the course of the last several years with their parents, many of whom have never been to college or seen colleges.”
Both the visits to the campus and the i-chat tutoring sessions are made possible by the College of Education’s Office of Multicultural Programs and the effort of Maria Schmidt, assistant dean of the multicultural programs who said that the online tutoring initiative is good example of creative partnerships between teacher education colleges and schools and their communities.
“The experience is a learning opportunity for all involved,” said Schmidt. “It provides an opportunity to increase future teachers’ cultural knowledge and sensitivity while making a meaningful impact in a high-need school.”
According to Otto, Sheppard is regularly under the threat of closure. Last year, the school was once again on a list of schools to be closed. However, that did not happen. Otto said that rising test scores and other data indicated to the School District of Philadelphia that the students at Sheppard were thriving.
“We are in a community that has lots of challenges: poverty, unemployment, drug traffic,” said Otto. “Our kids live in challenging circumstances. Penn State raised the school to the point where the school district realized that they could not afford to close Sheppard.”
And the elementary students love Sheppard and Penn State. Anthony, a third grader at Sheppard, said school is great.
“My favorite activities are art, computers, and science,” said Anthony. “My i-chat tutor helps me with my homework, and we play games.”
Yanleann, another Sheppard student, agrees. She also really likes going to school. She said her favorite class is gym, and that the i-chat sessions help her do her homework.
For now, Sheppard is beating the odds, and Otto said were it not for Penn State, there would be no Sheppard.
“It is Penn State that has given us the strength and courage to push on when every one else is saying to close the little, old schools because they are no longer relevant,” said Otto. “My staff last year proved to the school district that we were relevant and a large part of that relevance comes from Penn State.”
--by Kevin Sliman (April 2013)