It started with data.
Three years ago, Associate Professor of Education Stephen Whitney was studying the scores of elementary school students on the Missouri Assessment Program examination. Whitney was looking for a school with a low or nonexistent achievement gap.
He found four schools and invited teachers and administrators from each school to come to Columbia and discuss the strategies that lead to their success.
The answer was attention. Whitney believed he could help close to the achievement gap in Columbia schools by providing struggling students with individualized attention.
“We have these wonderful MU students who I know can do more than what we were asking of them in their field placements,” Whitney said. “And I said, ‘Let’s put these two together and give the teachers the help they need within the classroom time.’”
So far, it appears Whitney’s guess was a good one. The Achieve Program, which pairs one or two sophomore education students with a struggling elementary or middle school student, is working to close the achievement gap while providing MU students with hands-on experience.
Education students participate in the Achieve Program by taking two classes, one per semester: Whitney’s Inquiry to Learning course and Assistant Professor of Education Tony Castro’s Inquiry into Schools, Communities and Society course.
Each class has a field component. Castro agreed to pair his class with Whitney’s, allowing students to participate in the Achieve Program for a full year.
“I instantly fell in love with the program,” Castro said. “It was a great idea — really organizing the way for our young people, for our students to get experience in the community with kids that need support. It was a win-win for everybody.”
The elementary or middle school students are recommended for the program by their teacher and are then paired with either one or two MU students.
Junior Brittany Rich, who switched her major to education last year, said her Achieve Program student is making strides.
“Even though most of the assignments we’re doing are two days late because (the girl I tutor) doesn’t do them (on time), she’s still doing them with me,” Rich said. “So that’s really rewarding to know that there is something going on there.”
Whitney does not attribute the success of the elementary and middle school students in the Achieve Program solely to the program. There are other tutoring programs going on at the schools at the same time, he said.
Whitney and Castro said they believe the program makes a difference, and what makes it special, in their eyes, is the hands-on experience it offers education majors.
“They can develop more self-efficacy as a teacher,” Whitney said. “(The MU preservice teachers start thinking), ‘I can affect the lives of these kids. I can change their trajectories. I can get them going.’”
Castro said his students call the Achieve Program one of the best experiences of their college careers.
Rich said she appreciates the relationship that constant interaction with students fosters.
“(It) kind of (gives you) a stronger reason or an understanding of why you want to (go into education) because you’re getting more time with the students,” Rich said. “You can’t just let these students down. You can’t just not show up.”
The Achieve Program recently received a grant from a local State Farm Insurance Agency office. It will allow Whitney to continue to monitor the program.
The Achieve Program began at Fairview Elementary School three years ago. It now extends to Russell Boulevard Elementary School and West Middle School as well.
Whitney said he’s thinking about expanding the program beyond education majors, giving other students a chance to learn from the hands-on experience.
Whitney said he isn’t sure how to get to that point of expansion yet, but he is sure of one thing: The Achieve Program isn’t going anywhere.
“I’ll do it for as long as it’s a benefit to the teachers and the schools,” Whitney said.