By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—For the past five years, Parkwood Elementary School in Clarksville, Ind. has been the site of a unique partnership with IU Southeast’s graduate program in teacher education: the Summer Academy.
This year the Summer Academy brought IU Southeast faculty and 24 graduate students—including 11 students enrolled in the transition-to-teaching licensure program—together with selected Parkwood children for two weeks of intensive yet fun exercises in reading and math that also gave the teachers valuable classroom experience.
The Academy is essentially a teaching lab for the IU Southeast students. In addition to receiving advanced instruction in the teaching of language arts and math in elementary schools, the students are required to teach the two-week Academy at Parkwood, putting into immediate practice what they have learned.
The graduate students also act as mentors for the transition-to-teaching cohort. The “T2T” licensure is designed for individuals who already hold an undergraduate degree in a subject area unrelated to education who want to change careers and move into teaching. At Parkwood, many of these students get their first real taste of running a classroom.
Erika Velasco’s degree is in accounting, for example. She currently works at Silver Creek Elementary School in Sellersburg, Ind. as a Title 1 aide.
“I decided to apply to transition-to-teaching because I love working with kids,” Velasco said. “There is always something different in this field of work, making things more interesting and keeping the atmosphere alive.”
The children in the program present language challenges to varying degrees. They have been specifically invited by their regular school teachers to address issues with language and/or math during the summer.
But the significance of the Academy, and the connection to the community, go far beyond routine skill-building.
Over the past decade Parkwood, like other schools in the IU Southeast service area, has seen a significant rise in the enrollment of English language learners (ELL), primarily of Latino heritage. The school became one of the first to partner with IU Southeast’s New Neighbors program, which delivers professional development in English as a New Language (ENL) to faculty, staff and administrators, sensitizes them to the experiences of ELL students, and develops family-school partnerships and literacy programs that empower parents to actively participate in their children’s education.
Several years ago, Jennifer O’Brien, a teacher at Parkwood and adjunct instructor at IU Southeast, proposed a new partnership between the two institutions that could help Parkwood ENL pupils maintain their English skills over the summer break. The Summer Academy was born.
Five years later, enrollment is at capacity, with 32 children attending for two and one half hours each day, including lunch, all for free. It is a strong collaboration between the university, Parkwood and the community. The program is co-directed by Dr. Susan Ridout, professor of education and Debi Mink, associate professor of education. Callie Petty, an IU Southeast alumna who teaches fourth grade at Parkwood, serves as “principal,” managing and motivating, reaching out to parents, as well as supervising admission, arrival and dismissal. She also gathers the books that form the core of the lesson plan and are coveted by students, who will take them home for further work and sharing. For the past four years, funding for books has been generously provided by Dr. Arthur Boerner of Jeffersonville, Ind.
The Summer Academy is focused on English language arts, specifically reading, built around a central unifying theme. This year’s theme was outer space. In one class, students took the names of planets and walked in elliptical orbits around their teacher, who played the sun, while another teacher made a video of the exercise on her tablet. In another, the children visited the NASA website and calculate celestial distances using the metric system. In still another, there were solar-system cookie arrangements and the children painted alien masks.
There is also a strong mathematics component, driven by Mink, who pulls math-related content from the readings for exercises that add depth and impact to both teaching and learning around the central theme.
“Using a theme can help make learning more interesting and meaningful,” said Ridout. “When children are reading books, taking virtual field trips, writing notes and stories, and working on specific comprehension strategies that are all interconnected, they are more excited and learning is not disjointed, but rather authentic.”
The graduate and T2T students’ coursework—reading in the morning and math in the afternoon—takes place not at IU Southeast, but in the very same Parkwood classroom in which they teach, giving the theory an immediate connection to its practical application, and keeping the service-learning nature of the Academy present.
At the end of the Academy, this year’s “graduates” took their new books home, where they will read them to their families. But more importantly, they will use the books as launching pads for other explorations, not as ends in themselves. Like the outer space journeys they have been encouraged to make during the Academy, their voyages of learning in language and math will be enriched by a method that forges linkages between the disciplines in creative and fun ways.
Ridout believes that the benefits for both students and community are linked to the structure of the teaching model employed by the Academy.
“When teachers design a standards-based creative curriculum, students thrive and school becomes a more joyful place,” Ridout said.
Homepage photo: IU Southeast transition-to-teaching student Chelsea Cotner, with Parkwood Elementary pupils in the Summer Academy. Photo by Debi Mink.