Summer program creates learning opportunities for students, new teachers
By Sara Woelfel
"Do you think you can do it? I think you can.”
The adult tutor leans over the student, encouraging the young girl as she carefully sounds out words in a storybook. Oblivious to the conversations around them, the two share a classroom with five other pairs also intently focused on the books, dry-erase boards, flash cards and tasks before them.
This scene plays out daily in classrooms throughout the country during the academic year. But these interactions at Capitol West Academy in Milwaukee occurred during the mid-summer swelter at a free program offered to 4K through 8th grade students who spent mornings in science and literacy lessons and afternoons focused on math, music, Spanish, sports, cooking, gardening, and other high-interest areas. The program is intended to sharpen the students’ academic skills while expanding their interests.
Yet, the students may not realize how their attendance this summer also provided an essential opportunity for some of their teachers to likewise sharpen their skills.
Enrolled in the Master of Arts in Urban Special Education program at Stritch, 30 teachers led science lessons infused with literacy components and conducted one-on-one tutoring sessions for three summer weeks in July. During the previous school year, they all taught in Milwaukee Public Schools’ special education classrooms on emergency teaching licenses, enduring the inevitable first-year teaching challenges while simultaneously pursuing their graduate studies.
“That first year is very much a baptism by fire,” said Dr. Deb Adrian Heiss, chair of the Urban Special Education program who oversees Stritch’s partnership with Capitol West Academy.
After that first year in the classroom, Heiss said the Capitol West Academy experience provides the new teachers valuable time to slow down at the midpoint in their master’s program and work with small groups of children of all abilities.
“During the summer experience they are able to focus on the true cycle of teaching – where you assess, you teach, you adjust, you re-assess – and you keep going back to where you’re looking at the student and observing the student and being reflective in your own practice,” said Stritch alumna Jessie Vance, ’02, one of three literacy master teachers working with the University students at Capitol West Academy to provide feedback and resources.
“It’s a rich collaborative environment and a rich instructional environment for teachers because they are not only having the opportunity to learn from the children but also from their colleagues and master instructors,” Heiss said.
Stritch students lead classrooms in three-person teams, with each teacher assigned one day a week to plan activities and lessons for the two-hour science-literacy period. They outline their own role in the lesson as well as the duties of the supporting teachers. Daily reflection allows them to review their own work as well as provide feedback for their co-teachers.
“It is an eye-opening moment for many of them,” Vance said. “They are having to take a look at their own strengths as an educator and what they need to do differently to increase and maximize student engagement in the process. It really allows them to maximize their own practices because they get to work with two other people and learn from each other.”
While the summer program’s focus is not on special education, Stritch student Karina Tweedell attests the instructional tools, classroom strategies, and assessment processes she practiced at Capitol West Academy made a difference in her special education classroom from her first day back at school in September.
“I thought the Capitol West program was by far the most useful experience I’ve had at Cardinal Stritch so far,” said Tweedell, a special education teacher at Pulaski High School in Milwaukee. “I thought it was extremely helpful. And right now in my teaching I can see that some of the things I did in summer or some of the techniques I picked up during that time, I can implement them in my classroom right now. I don’t think before in those theory classes that I could see so clearly the connections.”
Tweedell enrolled at Stritch through the Milwaukee Teaching Fellows program, which, along with Teach for America, brought students to the University during the past several years. Both programs recruit future educators who agree to work in urban districts while furthering their education.
Heiss calls the summer school program “an authentic partnership,” noting the mutual benefits that parties at both schools receive. Started five years ago when Dr. Linda Gordy, associate dean for the School of Urban Initiatives, began working with Capitol West Academy on a similar project, the summer school program grows each year, serving a record-high 120 children this year.
“It’s hugely beneficial to the kids and it’s fun to see them so excited to be in school,” said Donna Niccolai-Weber, executive director of Capitol West Academy. “The partnership is fabulous, I think, from all perspectives. It allows us to manage a full-day summer school program and provide smaller class sizes. We feel really lucky that we have this partner.”
The two schools connect in other ways, too. Capitol West Academy participates in the Southeastern Wisconsin New Teacher Project (SEWNTP) at Stritch, which helps schools train and support mentors as well as the new teachers they guide. In addition, SEWNTP Director Rhonda Dubin sits on the Capitol West Academy board of directors, while Niccolai-Weber serves on the School of Urban Initiatives advisory board at Stritch. Several Stritch alumni also work at Capitol West Academy, including Coordinator of Student Services and Academic Support Zuwena Cotton, ’03, who serves as one of the key administrators for the summer program.
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Stritch Magazine.