By Jessica Nina Lester, Robert Kronick, and Gavin Luter
There is no shortage of ideas around how to reform education, particularly for youth described as “at risk for failure.” In 2012 (see Lester, Kronick, and Benson), we described one approach to addressing the afterschool needs of youth in Knoxville, Tenn. This approach was one founded on collaboration, reciprocity, and systems change. It was an approach that reframed how universities interact with the surrounding community. Rather than assuming that academic life is only about researching about educational issues, the university-assisted community school (UACS) model invites faculty and university students to become active members of a school community. As active collaborators, they brainstorm with community members and school staff about how to create wraparound services for children and families living within the community. They don’t just stop with brainstorming though. The brainstorming leads to some kind of action. In the case of Pond Gap Elementary School, the UACS model resulted in an after-school program that provides services that included academic support, play therapy, basic health services, parent involvement activities, and recreation. In this case, faculty from three colleges at the University of Tennessee participated in creating a sustainable after-school program.
It has now been almost three years since the doors of the Pond Gap UACS opened its doors to elementary students and parents in the Knoxville community. Housed in Pond Gap Elementary School, this program is funded by philanthropist Randy Boyd, the United Way of Greater Knoxville, and Knox County Schools. It serves 98 students (with 30 on the waiting list), and offers programs such as ethics education, circus, music, Chinese language, reading, art, etc.
We recently spoke with some of the students and parents who spend time at Pond Gap. Across the board, many students shared how the program gave them time to complete homework and a safe place to play and learn with their peers after school hours where they can “do something different.” Parents said UACS allowed them “do what I need to do”, while knowing their child is “learning a lot more,” taught “in a loving way,” “getting more one-on-one attention,” and “finishing their homework.” Parents also mentioned the benefit of having a place where they could learn skills, such as how to effectively manage their child’s behaviors and engage in financial planning. Parents can also take GED classes and get legal advice on site.
Standing as one approach, the UACS model calls us to rethink how faculty and university students engage with their surrounding community. Rather than viewing their work as only occurring within the confines of their institutions, programs like the Pond Gap after-school program provide tangible evidence of how partnerships between K-12 schools and universities can positively affect the community.