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Education students volunteer to teach literacy at city school

3/21/2012 —

Students in Penn State Lehigh Valley's education program have been student teaching in area schools like Allentown's McKinley Elementary school for five years. This year, the relationship with McKinley has broadened beyond traditional student teaching to volunteering for programs that further the school's mission as a COMPASS school. The next volunteer activity takes place during McKinley's Book Blast to be held from 5-7 p.m. on March 21 at Christ Lutheran Church, 1245 Hamilton St., Allentown, Pa.

Community Partners for Student Success (COMPASS) was launched in 2005 by the United Way "with a vision to identify, strengthen, and promote community-connected schools," according to the organization's website. The program overview goes on to state that "Community schools are designed to transform schools into the hub of their neighborhood by organizing a wide array of programs and services in the school so that students and families can get their needs met in one place," with the overall goal of "improving academic achievement by removing all barriers to learning."

McKinley is a relatively new member of this initiative having become a COMPASS school in August 2011. Principal Richard Kern believes the COMPASS model is a good fit for his school, which faces barriers common to many urban schools with a culturally diverse and often economically disadvantaged student population.

"The idea is to wrap the community around the school so that our teachers can focus on teaching and the community can help meet the social needs of our kids," said Kern.

The Boys and Girls Club of Allentown serves as the lead community partner for McKinley and provides an on-site community school director in Amy Jahn de Torrez. The program is supported by a site-based Leadership Team of educators, parents, community and business partners, and others, of which Penn State Lehigh Valley is a part.

Together, the community school team at McKinley has implemented programming throughout the year that embraces the COMPASS model, including a number of activities focused on literacy–a perfect fit for a school where 40 of its 320 students consider English a second or other language. The literacy programs are also a great fit for the Penn State Lehigh Valley's elementary education majors, particularly those currently enrolled in the World Languages Education 400 course, Foundations of Language in Second Language Teaching.

Students in this class have participated in two of McKinley's Book Blast programs, as well as its celebration of Dr. Seuss's birthday. During each after-school Book Blast program, the Penn State students are partnered with McKinley students and their parents and even siblings in a family model of learning. They work on English-language skills through reading, and an extension activity that the children take home, along with a book, as a visual reminder of what they learned. Participants also have time to socialize and share refreshments, which are often donated by the community partners.

For the Penn State students, it is an opportunity to interact with students and families in a school setting before their traditional student teaching begins.

"The program provided me the chance to work with an ELL (English Language Learner) and their family. The eagerness and excitement of not only the child, but also the family, was an eye-opening experience that I will always remember," said Heather Thomas, a junior elementary education major from Nazareth, Pa. "I applaud my professors for their dedication in fostering an outstanding partnership and rapport with the students, parents, teachers and administration at McKinley."

In addition to scholarly pursuits, Penn State Lehigh Valley students are also volunteering to do after-school programs for the children with such interest groups as field hockey, dancing, and flag football. In this way, they are sharing their personal talents with McKinley learners.

Elementary education program faculty and McKinley administrators hope to expand the college students' pre-service field experience in the next school year to work with the school's kindergarten classes as the Penn State Lehigh Valley program evolves to include Pre-K through fourth grade certification.

The staff and faculty at McKinley see the Penn State students not only as volunteers, but as role models for their students.

"We want all of our students, even at this elementary school level, to be thinking about college," said Principal Kern. "Interacting with college students from Penn State Lehigh Valley, many of whom come from Allentown, reminds our kids that higher education is attainable."

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