We often tout the value of place-based education activities for rural schools, students and teachers, but we should spend more time illustrating its value to higher education students. The truth is, in many ways, colleges and universities do a better job of providing their students with experiential, community-based learning opportunities than do public schools.
Neilson Elementary School’s after school early-literacy program in Galesburg, Illinois is an excellent example of a program that is impacting both elementary and college students. Funded by a $1,000 Grants in Place award, grant coordinators Ashley Shinn, kindergarten teacher, and Jenny Bredemeier, Reading Recovery teacher, oversee a program that pairs five Knox College student volunteers with ten kindergarten students, who benefit from a variety of age-appropriate early literacy activities.
Shinn explained the structure of the program: “The program is five weeks long and meets twice a week, for a total of ten sessions. There are five different learning stations, so the college students are always working with two students at a time.” The program will be replicated during the spring term, and it complements to school's Reading Recovery effort.
Kindergarten student selection for the program was done in a thoughtful manner. “We identified ten students who we believed would really benefit from purposeful early language experiences,” Shinn said. She went on to add, “At first, some of the children were reluctant to open up, but by the second session all ten really seemed to enjoy working with the Knox College students.”
Karina Martinez, a Knox College sophomore from Chicago, has learned her own lessons from working with young students in a much smaller community, which includes being in a school building where she can look out a window and see cornfields. “I came in afraid,” she said. “I had never worked with little kids. I thought, ‘What do I do now?’”
But with good coaching and encouragement from Shinn and Bredemeier, Martinez has grown more comfortable in her volunteer role and believes she has learned as much as her young students. “I have seen firsthand how some students have more advantages than others, which has only strengthened my interest in the fields of sociology and anthropology. I have really come to see the importance of focusing on the literacy needs of all of the children.”
Martinez, who heard about the volunteer opportunity in her Knox College School and Society class, praises her professor, Dr. Joel Estes, for encouraging her to participate. She says in a matter of fact manner, “Joel Estes is a fantastic professor.”
Shinn and Bredemeier were one of 35 Grants in Place award recipients in the Rural School Collaborative’s 2015 inaugural place-based grant making venture. The Galesburg Community Foundation, which is a founding partner of the Collaborative, provided funding support for the Grants in Place program.
The Rural Schools Collaborative (RSC) was launched in the spring of 2015 and is working with organizations in eight different states. RSC has a small administrative office in Cambridge, Wisconsin.
Below, left to right: Jenny Bredemeier, Reading Recovery Teacher; Josh Gibb, Galesburg Community Foundation executive director and RSC board member, and Ashley Shinn, Kindergarten Teacher. Jenny and Ashley are both proud alums of Knox College, and Josh is an equally proud alum of Western Illinois University! (Their t-shirts say "Nielson Navigators.)