Teacher, Clayton Middle School, Salt Lake City School District
Perhaps nowhere in American education does the story of contrast and division play out more vividly than in our cities, where a large concentration of students go to school and their achievement struggles are well documented. In many urban centers, it’s not unheard of that those who are able choose charters or private schools or leave altogether. But what happens when, instead of allowing perceived barriers to education tell a tale of haves and have-nots and drive wedges among communities, we forge human connections that create opportunity to learn and build a more cohesive school environment?
For students in Salt Lake City’s Clayton Middle School, teacher Stephanie Hunt has made it her mission to adopt a personalized approach to education that is making a difference for her students. Hunt teaches language arts, social studies and math to seventh- and eighth-graders, including a class of English Language Learners. ELL students make up a little more than 14 percent of the population. She readily acknowledges the differences among the immigrant and refugee students, who draw from 10 different countries and speak 14 different languages, but she doesn’t let where they come from define who they are or their ability to learn or form relationships with other students.
Hunt works to establish an immediate connection with her ELL students. She’s created an intake process that relies on one-on-one time, including lunches and home visits, to talk about individual life and learning experiences. This approach gives her important clues about students, like whether they’ve gone to school in the refugee camp or have ever held a book in their hands. These insights enable Hunt to, as she describes it, “structure a scaffold” for them.
Student support includes access to snacks for students who are not accustomed to American food and weekend staples for those whose families may be challenged to provide meals. Hunt also gives students the ability to get school supplies in exchange for a commitment to follow through on some component of their education, like getting to school on time or improving math scores. Hunt believes this is a particularly powerful part of the support that makes students feel more engaged.
Another part of building connections is a peer buddy system. While other schools may assign an ELL student a buddy for a day or short period of time, Hunt insists her students need ongoing support. “My kids need that buddy on a much more intense level,” she said. Not long after Hunt started the program, she realized that the relationship between buddy and new student needed more balance to be effective. She now asks buddies to learn five to ten phrases in the new student’s language so that he or she, in effect, becomes the teacher. For the buddies, it gives them empathy and also helps break down the walls of language and culture. The benefits have been so great that Hunt has led the development of a “Family to Family” program that pairs buddy and refugee families. Parents form important relationships with other parents that help them navigate the school year.
“The sense of community becomes so much stronger for our new refugee and immigrant families, so they know who to call,” Hunt said. “If they get a thing about a parent/teacher conference, a lot of times our families will now go get them and bring them here. Some of these friendships have made a huge difference.”
“The sense of community becomes so much stronger for our new refugee and immigrant families, so they know who to call…”
Hunt also leads critical in-classroom work that helps encourage student potential and community. Because her students are at many different levels in terms of understanding the language and being able to write, one class assignment requires them to write their life story. At the end of the year, the story is published with the help of the peer buddy and the other teachers in the school. Copies of the stories are sent to the refugee camps and prisons, where the students may have family.
Another exercise centers on pursuing higher education with students practicing college applications and participating in a college week. All of the activity is exciting for students. It gives them hope and reinforces their ability to learn. For Hunt, the most exciting part is that they do, in fact, learn. “Right now, I have six students with the PACE scholarship for Salt Lake Community College and one student with a full-ride to the University of Utah,” Hunt said. “For me, that’s the biggest paycheck, being able to see these kids put all that we’ve worked on into action.”
This article is part of a bigger feature story on education opportunity in Urban America. Read the full article here.
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