Project Provides Students with Hands-On Experience
by David Price (April 2011)
University Park, Pa. -- A recently developed class project in Penn State's College of Education gives preservice teachers a unique understanding of the educational consequences of inequalities of funding across American public schools. The project is part of the curriculum for Educational Theory and Policy (EDTHP) 416, Sociology of Education.
The project was developed by David Baker, professor of educational theory & policy, and Maryellen "Mimi" Schaub, assistant professor of educational theory & policy and curriculum & instruction. Students in EDTHP 416, in groups or alone, adopt a K-12 classroom in an under-resourced school district and learn about the challenges faced by the school, the teacher, and the students because of a resources shortfall. Then they collaborate with the teacher to develop a way to assist the teacher. This unique project was first implemented during the fall semester 2010.
"This was a very exciting assignment that engaged students in the community and encouraged awareness of educational challenges in real schools," says Schaub. "I will be using a similar assignment in Education in American Society, our foundations course for all undergraduate majors, in the fall of 2011."
The students adopted a range of classrooms, from special education and prekindergarten to high schools. Many of the schools were in areas with high levels of poverty, with more than 75% of the students being eligible for free lunches at school. Classrooms were from a range of school districts, including impoverished urban neighborhoods in Philadelphia and central New Jersey, rural impoverished small towns in Pennsylvania, and one in Texas.
Schaub says, "Although the federal government attempts to supplement local tax dollars in high poverty areas, it remains a fact of American education that our most impoverished school districts have lower per pupil expenditures and greater needs for all types of services. This assignment encouraged our students to think through the day to day consequences of teaching and learning in these schools."
"I come from a completely different background," says sophomore secondary education major Nicholas Hannan, one of the students in the pilot EDTHP 416 class. "I was raised in a two-parent, middle-class, suburban home. I never had the economic hardships that many of these students have."
Hannan and two other students adopted a class in southwest Philadelphia. The neighborhood is impoverished, and many of the students come from single-parent homes. "Since parents spend so much time working, communication between parents and teachers is minimal, and this is something we wanted to address," Hannan says. "The team developed an easy-to-use blog in hopes of increasing parental engagement and facilitating the communication between parents and teachers.
"The site can be accessed without creating an account and provides a simple space for the teacher to communicate about material covered, homework, tests, quizzes, and whatever else she wants to mention," Hannan explains. "A parent can go to the Web page and type a comment without even having to be registered. We believe this is easier and less confrontational and therefore more likely to be used than a phone call, email, or face-to face meeting."
A number of students found ways to donate much-needed basic instructional materials. Jennifer Flanagan and her team, for example, found that the teacher in a second grade Harrisburg school was unable to assign independent reading homework at night. "These children were living in poverty and did not have books at home, something I certainly took for granted as a child," Flanagan relates.
During the semester, the team collected more than 150 books, sending each child in the class home with six books in December, including some especially for English language learners.
"One of the most touching moments," Flanagan says, "was the way a little girl's face lit up when I told them that there were a few stories written in Spanish and English. At home her family only speaks Spanish; these books were giving her the opportunity to experience the joys of reading together with her family!"
Tommi Ann Church adopted a fourth grade classroom in the Spring Cove school district in Roaring Spring, Pa.—a class being taught by her mother.
"I always jump at the opportunity to work with a classroom, especially one in the central PA area where I grew up," Church says. "I knew that my mother was struggling with their behavior problems, from cheating to laziness to minor bullying, and I saw her classroom as an opportunity and a challenge."
"For the most part," she says, "the schools in this district have the physical resources they need. However, while the kids have access to great textbooks and school laptops, that obviously wasn't solving the behavior problem. I immediately knew I wanted to offer some form of character education."
Church created an in-class program that provided students with concrete examples of desired behavior traits, like honesty, hard-work, respect for teachers, helpfulness, and kindness, and then rewarded the students for achieving the goals.
"My mom told me that students were coming up to her desk and organizing papers and saying, 'Hey Mrs. Church, did you see that? Give me two points for 'helpfulness!'" Church says. "There were lots of little occurrences like that, and those are the things that inspired me the most. The students were actually responsive to a simple program I developed."