By Lisa Patterson
Guest Writer for Marketing & Communications
If you polled people, chances are few would raise their hands and volunteer to go back to middle or high school. For many, those were awkward times in just about every way imaginable. For folks that struggled with reading, writing, communication or other subjects, even the academics of those school days probably felt like huge weights to bear.
But students at Keithley Middle School and neighboring Washington High School — both down the street from Pacific Lutheran University — may not share those sentiments if they were polled years from now. That’s because they now have a safe and inviting place to kick back, relax and learn skills that will not only help them excel at school, but also in life.
The Parkland Literacy Center (PLC), 1112 124th St. South, opened last March in a house next to Keithley Middle School. There, PLU faculty and students serve the community through literacy-training and academic-support programs. Students visit with a variety of goals — some are working on improving skills, and others are in programs like Advanced Placement (AP) and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college-readiness program, and are seeking extra guidance and support.
The idea for a writing center that would serve the community surrounding the campus began in 2016, when co-director Scott Rogers and his colleague in the PLU English Department, Jason Skipper, wrote a plan to fund the center. Their concept was based on a successful program in Salt Lake City.
“The goal was to provide writing and reading support for students in the community, and to serve as a hub for writing- and reading-related community activities,” Rogers said. The proposal wasn’t selected for funding in 2016, but did two years later.
That’s when Bridget Yaden joined as co-director with the intention of broadening the scope of the center’s offerings. “We adopted a vision of ‘literacy’ as more encompassing — more than just reading and writing, but also speaking, and strategies for learning and communicating in the world,” Rogers said.
“I see my unique contribution to the center as an extension of my role as the director of the Language Resource Center — expanding our support of languages out into the wider community, assisting middle and high school students with their language study and encouraging them to push their proficiency to higher levels,” Yaden said.
Both Yaden and Rogers have earned Ph.Ds and are passionate about education and helping students on PLU’s campus and beyond. PLC accomplishes both at the same time. Currently four PLU students are serving as assistant directors at the center — learning as they assist younger students who, by the way, they do not refer to as “kids.”
“If they are looking at a possible career in education, this is an opportunity to work with students and to learn the strategies of one-to-one and small group tutoring (which come in handy no matter the size of their future classroom),” Rogers said.
“If they aren’t considering a career in education, they are most likely looking at a future in which service will play an important role either at work, or in their own communities of interest,” Rogers continued.
“In this case, they are getting a chance to develop a more holistic view of what service might mean. We teach them to think about the students they tutor as students, not kids. these are students with big ideas, great vision and a desire to succeed. We’re just helping them along the way.”
The center is open four days a week, and usually three PLU students can be found working there. There are the four paid student assistant directors and several student volunteers.
Third-year Lute Sharlene Rojas-Apodaca is a double major in Hispanic studies and philosophy. Her decision to assist at the PLC was easy, because she’d previously served as an AVID tutor at Keithley and Washington her first two years of college.
“I saw how many students needed more help outside of school, so when I heard about the PLC I knew that I wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “It has been a very rewarding experience to be able to work with students, especially those from Washington High School, who come in after school to continue to work on their homework, move forward on projects or to prepare for a test. The students are very motivated, and it has been wonderful helping them.”
Rojas-Apodaca said giving back is what motivates her the most about her student assistant director job. “Being a part of the PLC has given me the opportunity to help this community in a very meaningful way,” she said. “As a future lawyer, I hope to continue to invest in places like the PLC wherever I end up.”
Biology major Susan Schowalter ’19, another student assistant director, helped a student and a family member with a college application process last year, which she said was a rewarding highlight.
“I was drawn to the PLC because it was an opportunity to provide exceptional resources like writing help and class tutoring to students in the Parkland community,” she said. “Being a university that brings in large numbers of people from around the country, PLU asks a lot of the community. The PLC felt like an opportunity to share all that PLU has built, with a community that has allowed for the continued presence of this college.”
The PLC is located in a house owned by PLU. It maintains more of a cozy home feeling than that of a traditional tutoring center with an office vibe. There’s a large table, flat-screen computer monitor, and even snacks in the kitchen. The large den is great for group events and a bedroom is available for quiet study.
“We highlight an atmosphere of ‘co-learning,’ in which students from Washington and Keithley and students from PLU are approaching the activity of learning from an equal playing field,” said student assistant director Nick Templeton ’19. “As a result, the atmosphere aims to be as welcoming as possible, eliminating hierarchies of learning and creating a space where learners of all ages come together to study,” continued Templeton, an English and Hispanic studies double major.
Now that the co-directors have solid footing, they are ready to see what else the literacy center can offer. They’ve begun collaborating with faculty members in PLU’s Division of Natural Sciences on STEM support. They’ve connected with the university’s Center for Community Engagement and Service to offer adult English as a Second Language programming. They also are working with other long-running PLU programs that are connected with Keithley and Washington, like Big Buddies.
“This is an important collaboration between Parkland and PLU,” Rogers said. “Everything we do is driven by what we’ve heard from the schools and the larger community.
“I think it (PLC) embodies the best of what PLU is all about. We are an institution committed to serving others, supporting our communities, and leading with our heads and our hearts.”