When the Academic Avengers arrive on campuses for the Washington Elementary School District’s After-School Academy, smiles erupt. And not just on the face of the young learners who receive support in math, reading and leadership skills from the college students whose mission, as part of this year-old program, is to “unmask the hero in every child.”
With 32 schools located in north central Phoenix and east Glendale, the district serves a diverse population of more than 22,000 students. Eight schools are part of the Academic Avengers program.
Heather Merrill, a faculty member in Glendale Community College’s teacher preparation program, said her students who are part of the Academic Avengers program, which began last spring, “get these big beaming smiles on their face” when they talk about their experience.
“They start to speak about certain kids, and how much they loved working with them,” Merrill said. “They feel so empowered.”
Forty eight college students from GCC, Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University and Grand Canyon University worked two days a week for nine weeks last fall with 550 elementary students who were chosen for the optional after-school program based on data and assessments.
This spring, the program expanded with 57 college students providing tutoring. The collaboration began in Spring 2013 after the district lost federal funding for its afterschool program at eight schools.
“This new partnership has been a winning endeavor all the way around,” said Kathleen McKeever, director of WESD’s academic support department. “Students received credit hours for their college classes, and WESD students received much needed academic intervention.”
During the pilot program, many Washington students reached their yearly academic goals, according to McKeever. At Cactus Wren Elementary, over 70 percent of students met their academic goals.
She added that the Academic Avengers have made an impact beyond improved math and reading skills.
“These college students of many ages served as positive examples as they diligently work towards their educational and professional goals,” McKeever said. “This after-school arena provided a space for the exchange of stories, goals and dreams. This inspired our students to think about their own potential and more seriously consider college as a real opportunity.”
Merrill said GCC students have been surprised at how excited some of the young students are to “know a real college student.”
“The college students say they never realized the impact that would have,” Merrill said. “They share what they’re doing in a college classroom, how they did in school, what they learned in high school, and maybe how they struggled with learning. I think it is very inspirational, and the kids begin to see, oh yeah this is possible, and this is real.”
Merrill believes the fact that GCC students reflect the diversity of the district’s students, with some having attended Washington schools, has contributed to the program’s success – and may pay future dividends, including increasing the cultural competence and diversity of Arizona teachers.
Programs like Academic Avengers can become a way for school district to “grow” a teacher corps that is both culturally aware and reflects the diversity of the community, especially when local community college students participate, she said.
“Most community college students stay close to home for good reasons: family, it’s what they’re comfortable with, and we know they’re going to go back to teach in these schools,” Merrill said.
Increasing the diversity and cultural competency of teachers in the classroom has become a growing priority for Arizona education leaders, and was one of two key goals identified in the Arizona Minority Student Progress Report 2013: Arizona in Transformation, which was released recently by the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center.
According to the report, since 2004 minority students have become an increasing majority in P-12 classrooms, with Hispanic students comprising the largest proportion of minority students
“Part of the case we are making with the report is that we are not talking about a future change in the demographics of K-12, it’s actually what has already happened that some people are not aware of,” said Dr Maria Harper-Marinick, AMEPAC board chair and executive vice chancellor and provost of Maricopa County Community Colleges.
“In many K-12 classrooms, Hispanic students are now the majority,” Harper-Marinick said. “We’re not a minority anymore.”
But that demographic change is not reflected among teachers or school administrators, she added.
“We believe that we need to have more diverse teachers who are sensitive to the cultural differences and who in many cases look like the students they are teaching and can serve as role models and inspirational leaders for the students,” Harper-Marinick said.
Strengthening the pipeline between community colleges with diverse student populations and four-year universities is essential, Harper-Marinick said.
When students see people that look like them in positions of leadership it reinforces that they too can one day be in a similar position and it motivates them to succeed, said Joseph Ortiz, director of public and community relations with Roosevelt Elementary School District in Phoenix and a key contributor to the “Diversity Communications Toolkit” for school districts, recently published by the National School Public Relations Association.
“Oftentimes, the shared cultural background, country of origin, or common language gives a culturally competent teacher the bond that they need to reach a student who may be struggling,” Ortiz said. “The culturally competent teacher can empathize with the struggles or challenges that may come with a student that they have a shared experience with.”
For example, a culturally competent teacher might understand the language and cultural barriers students face, and know that in some cultures where humility is considered a virtue, it can be seen as bragging to showcase your accomplishments, Ortiz said.
In a classroom, that could mean students may be reluctant to raise their hands if they know an answer.
“A culturally competent teacher who shares the culture would know this and let the student know that it is O.K. to toot your own horn every once in awhile,” Ortiz said. “The culturally competent teacher serves as the bridge between the student and society.”
The key to attracting diverse and culturally aware teachers is to go where they are, Ortiz said.
“Don’t expect them to find you. Go out and look for them,” Ortiz said. “Advertise in diverse publications, such as the Arizona Informant, which is the dominant African-American weekly newspaper in the state. For Latinos or bi-lingual teaching candidates, advertise in newspapers like La Voz or Prensa Hispana.”
Taking part in job fairs sponsored by Spanish-language television outlets like Univision and Telemundo is another route, Ortiz said.
He said programs like Washington ESD’s Academic Avengers are important, too.
“It is also important to have a good relationship with the local colleges and universities that are graduating teaching candidates to see if you can find any that attended your schools or grew up in the area that you serve,” Ortiz said. “Chances are, those new teachers will mirror your student population and their common experience of attending your local schools will give them a perspective on what it’s like growing up in that area.”
Harper-Marinick said the process must begin with simply with convincing more college bound individuals of the rewards of the teaching profession. Recent surveys done in Arizona and nationally show higher expectations and stagnant wages have made the profession less attractive than it once was.
“It’s not just that we need to attract more students of color into teaching professions, we need to attract more people, period,” Harper-Marinick said. “We need to communicate the value and the benefit of being a teacher, the satisfaction of helping people grow and become all they can be, all the good things that made some of us go into teaching.”
For one GCC student who worked as an Academic Avenger, the early experience with elementary students has done just that. “Joining the Academic Avengers program was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” wrote the student. “After my experience with this program I have never been surer of my career choice in Education. I want to be a certified teacher and will work around every obstacle to get there.”