Best of Scene

If we can dream it, we can achieve it

By Jan Weiss
PLU encourages students to embrace an educational perspective that extends beyond campus. While McIlvaigh Middle School is only 5.2 miles from our campus, mentoring and tutoring middle school students in a high poverty and minority school provides a unique off-campus experience for first semester students in the School of Education and Movement Studies (SOEMS).

Our students welcome the opportunity to work with middle school students and are welcomed and accepted by the McIlvaigh community. They spend more than 40 hours during the semester serving this community. PLU students positively influence the lives of these middle school students and demonstrate their commitment to the PLU mission that addresses an undergraduate education focused on service, leadership and care.

Driving down 56th Street to its end at Portland Avenue, PLU students park in a dirt parking lot across from a 1963 middle school building clearly in need of a facelift. Next year, the students will be in a new building, but they currently learn in aging classrooms. Fortunately, the physical appearance doesn’t detract from the work that goes on inside the school with PLU students and McIlvaigh students and staff.

On their first visit to the school, a “Welcome PLU Students!” banner greets the students. Fresh donuts and beverages help ease the pain of arriving by 7:30 a.m. to meet the principal and the students with whom they will work during the semester. Our students are viewed as professionals committed to supporting the learning of these middle school students.

For the past three years, McIlvaigh Middle School has provided a memorable experience for our students. Many are surprised by the high poverty level of the school and community, but they are inspired by the positive attitude of the principal and the high expectations he places on the entire McIlvaigh community of students, faculty and staff.
Laura Dressler ’08 writes:

“Working at McIlvaigh was an amazing experience. The school itself is so diverse. The students are hard workers, and the staff have invested their time and their lives into making a difference in the community. Working at McIlvaigh felt like working with a family. Everyone has one set goal in mind – quality and effective education. The strategies used to communicate with parents, engage families, and support all staff and students were astounding.”

PLU students are paired with middle school students who benefit from having a mentor and role model. Our students help with class work, work in small groups and respond to numerous questions about their life experiences. Committing time at McIlvaigh allows our students to embrace the core values of service, care, competence, leadership and differences.

The opportunity to work closely with middle school students also lets PLU students practice basic teaching skills, develop authentic and caring relationships, and display a positive role model for adolescents. This experience vividly illustrates how a supportive teacher can make a difference in the life of a school child. Respecting and responding positively to adolescents provides a positive foundational experience for our SOEMS students.

The middle school also benefits from the 1,000-plus volunteer hours from our education students. Dan Dizon, the principal at McIlvaigh, is quick to share the success of his students. He attributes that success in part to the support of PLU students. Last year, the school went from 12 percent of students meeting standard on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to 57 percent meeting standard on the reading portion of the test. Math improvement wasn’t as dramatic, but scores increased from 15 percent to 30 percent meeting standard.

In their roles as mentors and tutors, PLU students work hard in these skill areas. They learn to embrace the school’s mission statement: “Where high expectations and teamwork result in success.” Dan Dizon says, “We believe that if we can dream it, we can achieve it.” He is proud of the school’s impressive academic gains. He is also effusive about PLU’s involvement in and commitment to the school. It is not only education students who are drawn to McIlvaigh’s commitment to fulfill its dreams of academic success for all students. For example, football players also commit time to working as mentors and role models to the middle school students.

Our students are committed to values identified in our long-range plan, “PLU 2010,” of leading lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership and care for other people, for their communities and for the earth. This commitment to the students at McIlvaigh represents a reciprocal relationship. By working with middle school students, education students learn teaching skills when they tutor, and they become compassionate and nurturing teachers as they listen and respond to the life stories of individuals.

They also develop an awareness of justice and equity as they observe multiple ways in which the school community overcomes obstacles as it works to increase learning and decrease the achievement gap. Conversely, McIlvaigh students become more competent and skilled in math and reading because of the intense individual instruction provided by PLU students. Adolescents develop trust for adults because of the respect and trust given by PLU students, and they can visualize academic accomplishment because of their interactions and relationships with college students who care about their success.
Katie Redman, ’08 provides some culminating thoughts as she reflects on her experience:

“A puzzle is a whole picture or concept, made up of many interlocking pieces. Each piece is unique with its own characteristics, color or shapes, yet when locked together with other unique pieces, it creates a whole. This is what comes to mind when I think of a school community, and this is what I experienced at McIlvaigh Middle School.

“This was rewarding because I was allowed to experience a school immersed in cultural diversity. I was allowed to become involved in the lives of students whose backgrounds were varied and were so different than anything I had experienced. I gained a new perspective, understanding and passion for diversity, and how important it is to embrace each student as an individual.
This opportunity opened the door for me and allowed me to practice what I have learned and positively impact the lives of
students.”

Jan Weiss is assistant professor of education at Pacific Lutheran University.

Photo top: Assistant Professor of Education Jan Weiss says there is mutual benefit from the more than 1,000 volunteer hours logged by PLU students, including (at far left) Katie Redman and Laura Dressler, at Tacoma’s McIlvaigh Middle School.