University of Vermont

University Communications

Learn and Serve

Federal grant creates connections between students and local community

King Street Center
UVM junior Jarred Landry works with a student at King Street Center where 120 local kids, many of them English language leaners, come every day to seek academic and social support. (Photo: Sally McCay)

It would have been easy for assistant professor Alan Tinkler and his colleagues in the College of Education and Social Services to dictate to the community how they planned to administer the Learn and Serve America Higher Education grant they won in 2010. Instead, they stayed true to their application promise by holding community forums to find out the real needs of the people the grant was designed to help – a growing immigrant and refugee resettlement population comprising English language learners.

A number of critical needs were identified at a series of Community Partner Advisory Committee meetings attended by some of the individuals contributing to the state’s 81 percent increase in the number of English language learners between 1998 and 2008. The need to support literacy efforts in schools; make resource materials available to families whose first language is not English; consistent homework support; and providing students and families with ways to tell their stories – some of which have since been given voice through associate professor Cynthia Reyes’ digital stories project – were apparent.

Faculty members aligned these community needs with course-based, service-learning opportunities, a concept associated with courses involving local community members that benefit both students and residents, in CESS’ teacher preparation programs. They include Reyes’ Young Adolescent Literature & Literacy; Tinkler’s Reading in Secondary Schools; and senior lecturer Jennifer Prue’s Adolescent Development: Cognitive and Behavioral Perspectives. Prue and senior lecturer Lia Cravedi have also added service-learning components to their Making a Difference: Exploring Education course that includes working with Burlington High School on a parent survey.

“At the departmental level, we are engaged in a curriculum mapping process to identify opportunities for service-learning throughout the curriculum of our teacher preparation programs,” says Tinkler, who served as the principal investigator on the U.S. Department of Education Learn and Serve grant administered through the Corporation for National and Community Service. “The success of the grant is based heavily on whether or not it becomes part of the ethos of our teacher preparation programs, and whether the relationships continue to develop and expand between the university and the community. That will be the true benchmark.”

Students gain valuable experience at local community centers

Like all secondary education majors, senior Kristin Davenport Reagan must complete a student teaching experience at a local school. Depending on the demographic makeup of her assigned school, she may or may not come into contact with English language learners. To gain experience in this area, Reagan helps students with homework, senior projects and non-academic issues at the O’Brien Community Center in Winooksi as part of her work as a teaching assistant in Tinkler’s Reading in Secondary Schools course.

“Working one-on-one with students allows you to build rapport and find out where they are academically,” says Reagan, who plans to return to her native northern Virginia following graduation to teach. “Helping students at the O’Brien Community Center has shown me the importance of assessment and differentiating instruction so every student can be successful. Working with such a diverse population in Winooski has been a positive experience for me and is something I needed to experience before I entered the field.”

Vicky Smith, executive director of King Street Center, now in in 40th year, says there’s been a shift in the focus of the center more toward academic and family support about seven years ago, when the Somali-Bantu population started arriving, and that the UVM connection has been valuable.

“That was a serious call to action,” she says. “The strength of King Street, because we are a local grassroots organization, does allow us to be very nimble and organic. Our ears and eyes are open, so when kids and families ask for things we’re able to be very nimble and respond. But our lens can be narrow; it’s just so compelling to have that child or mom or dad in front of us that we can, in our own passionate way, get caught up in those individual stories that sometimes we don’t take that breath to say, ‘Okay, how does this translate to a broader level?’ This is when we look to those experts at UVM like Alan to help us translate things from an advocacy level to a broader level so we can see these broader relationships. That’s why this partnership is so keenly felt.”   

Tinkler views the time spent by his students at the O’Brien Center and King Street Center where about 120 students come for help each day, including nine children in the pre-school program whose parents are refugees, as an opportunity to advocate for often-marginalized kids through literacy and engagement.

“Being able to understand individuals is the key to advancing literacy skills – be they community or academic literacy skills,” says Tinkler. “Service learning at its core is having an equal balance between course learning objectives and service to the community. This could mean helping a student fill out a college application or writing a cover letter. It’s much more of a relationship-based, collaborative process. That’s why we’re using both school placements in addition to community placements. It’s all about the impact that teachers have on student’s lives and making sure that you are looking out for all the students in your class. That’s a pretty powerful opportunity.”

Maximizing service-learning with less money

Carrie Williams Howe, director of UVM’s Community-University Partnerships & Service-Learning (CUPS), says her office has worked with three units on campus in "engaged department initiatives" aimed at taking a more strategic approach to service-learning across the whole of a unit’s curriculum. The result, she says, has been the creation of new courses as well as more intentional course sequences to build students’ capacity to work with community.

“In the Department of Education there has been a significant emphasis on engaging students earlier in their academic career, and on working with educational settings that complement the traditional K-12 school setting such as King Street Center,” says Howe. “Through this work, there is more emphasis on long-term relationships with community partners, deepening our ability to work collaboratively for greater impact on both students and community.”

Despite federal cuts reducing the original amount of the grant from $240,000 to $80,000, enough resources remain to support teaching assistant stipends; purchase supplies for service learning courses; enroll professors in the Faculty Fellows Program; and support professional development. By the end of the three-year grant, more than 440 future teachers are expected to have participated in service-learning projects. Additionally, some 300 K-12 students will have received tutoring and participated in service-learning projects with 80 percent of them expected to show an increase in academic achievement.

“Alan Tinkler and his colleagues, with support from a U.S. Department of Education Learn and Serve grant, have been able to make a variety of service learning opportunities available to students that have immediate benefits for the Vermont community,” says Fayneese Miller, dean of the College of Education and Social Services. “CESS’s commitment to the Vermont community is real. Each year our students contribute more than 170,000 hours of service to Vermont. We don’t just talk about making a difference – we really do.”