SRU faculty, students mentor future teachers


Brashear high school student learning about the opportunities of being a teacher

Brashear High School student Lindsey Matthews teaches environmental education to fifth and sixth graders at Slippery Rock University’s Macoskey Center as part of SRU’s RockTEACH Summer Institute, a program that prepares high school students for teaching careers.

June 20, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Lindsey Matthews just completed her junior year at Brashear High School in Pittsburgh and she already has her sights set on becoming a teacher. And thanks to a program at Slippery Rock University her vision has come into greater focus.

Matthews is one of many students at Brashear who has benefited from her involvement with RockTEACH, a program organized through the SRU College of Education. The program is intended to diversify the teacher workforce by promoting teacher education to underrepresented-minority high school students from low- to moderate-income households. Matthews said she has been emboldened by the opportunity to spend time with faculty and education majors at SRU.

"I've learned a lot about taking care of yourself as an educator and shifting your energy as a teacher to your students," Matthews said. "There's a lot of energy here (at SRU). There's that teacher inside us that helps us get along and watch out for each other."

Through the RockTEACH program, SRU faculty and students introduce high school students to the field of teaching and promote college attendance through reciprocal visits to each other's schools, including high school students attending a one-week residential RockTEACH Summer Institute, June 16-21, at SRU. Not only do the high school students learn about teacher education from SRU faculty and students, but they interact with school-age children from preschools and school districts that are also partnering with SRU for summer programs.

"RockTEACH is great program that connects our faculty to a greater diversity of students who would not otherwise think attending college is a possibility," said Keith Dils, dean of the College of Education. "This is how relationships are formed; you exchange ideas and build trust, and this program gives us a chance to showcase what we have, as far as opportunities, talented faculty, students and facilities."

The Summer Institute, a component of RockTEACH, is offered at no cost to SRU's partner high schools thanks to a $20,000 grant from the PNC Foundation.

"The purpose of the Summer Institute is to continue to build relationships and give the high school students an experience of what it's like to live on a college campus," said Christine Walsh, SRU associate professor of elementary education and early childhood, who is one of three RockTEACH co-directors. "The relationship-building is not just building relationships with the faculty but with college students and through interactions with children of various ages."

In the inaugural year of RockTEACH, four high school students, rising juniors and seniors, attended the Summer Institute through a partnership with Brashear High School in Pittsburgh. Brashear has a Teaching Academy Magnet Program that develops high school students who express an interest in teaching careers and provides them with teacher education curriculum alongside traditional classes.

The Brashear students -- Matthews, Corey Buck, Trevon Johnson and Caitlin McAlister -- were picked up by SRU faculty in Pittsburgh June 16. They stayed on campus all week, learning essentials about teaching, attending a financial aid workshop and interacting with children in grades 1-6, including fifth and sixth graders from the Farrell Area and Sharon City School Districts' summer enrichment program.

The RockTEACH residents taught environmental education to the grade schoolers at SRU's Macoskey Center, after receiving guidance from Macoskey Center staff led by Shawn Davis and Becky Thomas, assistant professors of parks, conservation and recreational therapy, and worked with children from the SRU/Student Government Association Preschool and Child Care Center. SRU student ambassadors from the COE served as mentors for participants.

"It's important for these students to understand what college is all about," said Lindsey Hawkins, a junior early childhood education major from Pittsburgh, who is one of the student ambassadors and grew up in a similar community to the students from Brashear. "The best way to find out is to learn firsthand, talking to professors and living in the residence halls. Yes, we want them to come to SRU, but it's important for them to learn about college in general. For me, a program like this would be important because you learn how to adapt to people's needs and learn new skills while also helping others."

"College is a lot different than high school," Matthews said. "There's a lot more choices to be made to better yourself, as opposed to high school where it's one set thing. The professors have taught me a lot about classes and majors and even what to eat when you go to lunch."

The week will conclude Friday with a closing ceremony, dinner for the students with their families and a guest speaker, Lawyer Johnson, a 2013 SRU graduate with a degree in early childhood/special education. Johnson attended Pittsburgh City Schools and he is currently a teacher in Culpeper, Virginia.

RockTEACH was formed last fall in response to a need that Dils identified through his involvement with the School District/University Collaborative, a consortium of colleges and universities that partner with Pittsburgh Public Schools with student-teacher placement.

"We asked (PPS) what their needs are and they said they have the students with the potential to be future teachers, but they don't have easy access to college," Dils said. "They also need teachers from different backgrounds. They would love to have their diverse students go to SRU and then return to serve as role models and say to their students, 'I was once where you are now.'"

SRU faculty and the student ambassadors visited Brashear six times during the academic year, conducting teacher-related presentations for more than 100 magnet-program students, while as many as 25 students from the program experienced campus life at SRU twice during the academic year by visiting campus, meeting students, faculty and staff, and attending events.

"SRU is only a 55-minute drive away from these schools in Pittsburgh but in some respects we are a world apart when it comes to socio-economic issues," Dils said. "RockTEACH bridges the gap and connects the two worlds. This is a new approach that makes us more accessible to a greater diversity of students and provides a greater diversity of future teachers to the community."

While the Summer Institute and the reciprocating school visits are part of the recruitment component, other "pillars" of RockTEACH are financial assistance and retention in college through mentorship and support. Funding from both SRU and external organizations provide scholarships, ensuring the progression of RockTEACH's mission to support students pursuing teaching careers. Char-Les Stephens, an incoming freshman early childhood/special education major from Pittsburgh, received a $5,000 scholarship, also through a PNC Foundation grant that supports RockTEACH. Stephens, who graduated from Brashear and was a part of its magnet program, attended the Summer Institute and was notified about her scholarship during a surprise presentation.

The final retention pillar of RockTEACH is program directors serving as academic advisers of RockTEACH students if they decide to attend SRU as college students, guiding them through course selection and state testing processes.

Joining Hawkins as SRU student ambassadors were: Erin Mackenstein, a senior early childhood/special education major from Ellwood City; Damion Reed, a sophomore early childhood/special education major from Monroeville; and Eric Lehman, a junior early childhood/special education from Bridgeville.

In addition to Walsh, the other RockTEACH co-directors are Jeremy Lynch, associate professor of special education, and Linda Zane, associate professor of elementary education and early childhood. Monique Alexander, assistant professor of elementary education and early childhood, is a faculty participant and will be part of the mentorship component.

"We all feel we have gained so much information this week," Walsh said. "We have learned alongside the high school students, the college student ambassadors, the preschoolers and the middle schoolers. We have a better understanding of their thoughts and we have new insights in environmental education and what it means for the high school students to spend time on campus."

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