Lifestyle - August 2, 2017

UCF program sends future teachers to rural communities

Michael McLaughlin went in “blind” when he spent several days in a kindergarten classroom at Robinson Elementary School in Plant City this past spring.

The UCF student said he grew up around Spanish speakers and studied the language in school but isn’t fluent. He was still able to connect with students, many of whom are learning English. He remembered one girl, a struggling reader, who decided to spend recess time looking at books with him.

“I could see these kids growing in the small time I was there,” said McLaughlin, 20.

A new University of Central Florida program launched this year is exposing future educators to rural schools. Called “Planting Seeds,” the initiative targets schools and organizations that serve large numbers of students who are still learning English, particularly youngsters from migrant, farm-working families.

Educators hope it will encourage at least some students to take jobs in rural schools after they graduate.

Six UCF students spent 40 hours this past school year in two Hillsborough County schools, including Robinson, or at the Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, a nonprofit that offers educational programs.

Planting Seeds is part of a course that UCF students take to learn how to teach students who are learning English. While completing a field experience is mandatory, most students spent time in schools in the largely urban Orlando area.

Students were selected for the rural-schools program based on interviews.

The program, which cost about $24,000 this year, including tablets for the UCF students and mileage reimbursements, was paid for through a larger Sanford Inspiring Teachers grant. The university plans to continue offering it.

UCF student Yvonne Clarke described helping with reading and math lessons in first- and second-grade classes at RCMA Wimauma Academy in southern Hillsborough as a “game-changer.”

Clarke, 29, grew up in the Tampa area and had never worked in a rural area, but now thinks she might like to try.

“You feel like you’re doing a little bit more than just teaching,” she said.

Clarke helped a boy master vocabulary words. When she returned to the school, he raised his hand in class and recalled that a “joey” was the name of a young koala, as well as a kangaroo.

“Just to see him lighting up, making that connection, it melts your heart,” she said.

Rural schools nationally tend to have “persistent staffing problems” because of low funding, limited teacher supply, lack of training options, and geographic and social isolation, according to a report from the Education Commission of the States, a policy organization.

And though they face similar hurdles, rural schools tend to get a little less attention than their urban peers, said Jerry Johnson, a professor at UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance, who has studied rural schools.

Filling jobs in rural parts of the state is tough, said Gina Stafford, professional development coordinator for the Heartland Educational Consortium, which represents six Central Florida districts south of Orlando. Living an hour or more from the beach or a metropolitan area is a tough sell, and rental housing in those areas is sometimes limited.

In Lake County, schools in rural areas tend to receive fewer applicants than suburban schools for the same types of positions, said Quiana Peterson, instructional recruitment partner for the district. Some applicants want big-city amenities or theme parks and suburban schools might have more name recognition than their far-flung peers.

“It is a real challenge, and it takes a lot of creativity to try to figure out how to level the playing field for them,” she said.

To help the rural schools attract more candidates, the district hosts job fairs specifically for positions in harder-to-fill schools and plays up the advantages of working in tight-knit communities.

Planting Seeds is one of a few ways UCF students are exposed to high-need schools. This past spring, UCF students boarded buses to Title One schools in Orange County. The college students spent the day meeting staff members, observing classrooms and eating lunch with kids, many who come from low-income households.

“If a student has everything in the world going for them, that’s one thing,” said Pamela Carroll, the dean of UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. “The same lessons are not going to work for the student who has to struggle to find time to do homework, or if the student is hungry or homeless. That doesn’t mean you don’t have high standards for the student who is hungry or homeless — you just have to find new ways to work with them.”

At Robinson, more than a third of the students are still learning English, according to the Florida Department of Education.

McLaughlin described the school as in the middle of strawberry fields, down the street from a rundown gas station and wooden fruit stands.

After graduating from UCF, McLaughlin said he hopes to teach abroad. He said he thinks his experience at Robinson will help prepare him to work with students who are learning English.

“This gave me a little dip in the water about how it would feel, and it was really rewarding,” he said.

His classmate, Karla Ortega, is a native Spanish speaker who moved to the mainland United States as a high school senior. She learned some English growing up in Puerto Rico but said instruction in the language there isn’t as rigorous.

At RCMA Wimauma Academy, Ortega tutored a fourth-grader who had just arrived in the U.S. She spent most of her time helping him build basic English skills.

“I know how they feel, the struggle,” Ortega said. “I don’t think it’s just for Spanish speakers, it’s more for any language.” or 407-420-5120

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