COLUMBIA — About a year ago, MU education student Tiffanie Hancock sat across from a kindergarten girl in the hallway of Fairview Elementary School. It was the first time the two had met, and it was awkward.
The girl stared at Hancock — not sure, it seemed, whether being singled out in the hall was a good thing.
And Hancock — who, at 27, is on her second undergraduate degree — was at a loss. She wanted to connect to this girl, but it wasn't working. Not yet.
Over the school year, the pair developed a trusting relationship in which the girl felt comfortable making mistakes as she learned letters and words.
Hancock was participating in the Achieve Program, for which MU education students can volunteer during their sophomore years. The goal of the program is to give one-on-one mentoring to students who need the extra help to catch up in the classroom.
"Not only did they start opening up about the mistakes they were making; they were free to make them around me, and they stopped looking at me for the answers," Hancock said. "We were a partnership in discovering what the answers would be."
Fairview's principal, Diana DeMoss, and Stephen Whitney, an associate professor in MU's College of Education, created the Achieve Program to address the gap in academic achievement among groups of students. It is also meant to curb what Whitney calls the preparation gap, meaning a divide in how ready children are for school on the first days of classes.
Now in its third year, the program expanded this year to Russell Boulevard Elementary and West Middle schools with funding from State Farm. This year, 133 MU education sophomores are volunteering for the program, up from 49 last year and 55 the year before.
The program has helped elementary students who've participated in it improve on their reading and mathematics skills, according to data Whitney collected.
At Fairview, the MU mentors work with kindergartners for half an hour twice a week and with first- through fifth-graders for an hour twice a week. Teachers select which students get tutored.
Working with the program resonated personally for Hancock. The oldest daughter of a single mother who worked two jobs, she recalled waking up, getting her younger sister ready for school and either walking or getting a ride there in her Illinois hometown. Her mother, who faced an hourlong commute into Chicago, was gone when the girls woke up and didn't return home until about 7 or 8 at night.
Hancock said that if she'd had the Achieve Program or something like it, she would have been a more successful student.
"Oh, my gosh, I think I would have done so much better, like flying colors, just because it is that extra little time that is needed," she said. "If they're (students) not getting it at home because there’s other circumstances that make it so they can't, giving them that 30 minutes twice a week — that's an hour of their school day that helps them enormously."
Extra help, role models
The program resulted from conversations between Whitney, whose children attended Fairview, and DeMoss about how to help struggling students. When Whitney, who works in educational psychology at MU and has specialized in at-risk students, suggested one-on-one mentoring, DeMoss embraced the idea.
Anja Walentik, who teaches kindergarten at Fairview and was Hancock's host-teacher last year, sees two benefits to the Achieve Program. One is the ability to give a student extra attention. Sometimes, classroom teachers are not able to provide it, DeMoss said.
"Together, we can really closely monitor the student and make sure they are showing progress in what they’re struggling with to really meet that child’s need," said Walentik, who is in her eighth year of teaching and her third year in the program.
Another benefit is that the MU students are role models.
"I think these kids really need that personal relationship," Walentik said. "Unfortunately, a lot of times, struggling students may have other things going on in their life so that just having another consistent person in their life is, I think, good for them."
Those other things could be, for example, parents who work a couple of jobs.
"They're just dead-dog tired when they get home," Whitney said.
DeMoss stresses to the college mentor-tutors the importance of showing up. The elementary school students look forward to it, she said.
In deciding which students are a good fit for the program, Walentik assesses a student’s knowledge of letter names and sounds by showing him or her a page with the alphabet out of order, points to a letter and asks what its name and sound is.
The assessment helps show whether the program is working. At the beginning of the year, a student might, say, get two letters right. After some time with his or her "special person" in the hallway, Walentik said, that student might get 10 letters right. On the next assessment, 20.
One of the reasons students improve is the trust that develops over time between the students and their mentors, Whitney said.
A few weeks into her tenure at Fairview, Hancock held up a flashcard with the letter R and a picture of a rabbit below it to the girl.
Hancock asked what letter the animal stood for.
Bunny, B, came the reply.
Hancock told her that, yes, it is a bunny, but another name for a bunny is a rabbit.
"What letter does r-r-r-rabbit start with?" Hancock asked.
She saw it click in the student’s mind. Rabbit, R.
"She'd have to make that mistake first, calling it a bunny, even in front of me before I could make that correction and help her understand that a bunny can have two names," Hancock later said.
When the pair revisited the flashcard, the girl got it every time. "She'd be like, 'B—no, rabbit, it's R,'" Hancock said.
Those successes might seem small, she said, but they let her know her pupil was learning. And as the girl began to trust Hancock, she began to open up about her life outside of school. "Miss Tiffanie" began to make appearances in her drawings.
As the year went on, Hancock noted how the girl and the other students being tutored developed more confidence in the classroom. On days she was at Fairview and substitute teachers were filling in for Walentik, Hancock helped out in the classroom and was able to see the children she worked with raise their hands more.
The achievement gap is not necessarily about race and class. When creating the Achieve Program, Whitney thought of the gap in terms of students who were successful and those who were not.
Whitney was also thinking about the gap in how prepared students are for school, which is a component of the achievement gap.
"Do they know the alphabet?" he asked. "Do they know that one is less than two, and that there’s a series to the numbers? Do they know how to write rudimentary letters and maybe their name? Are they reading simple words? You’ve got some kids who have been in the zoo and have seen Z-O-O and have had that experience of being directly in the same space as the animal, and you've got other kids who’ve only seen it on TV."
Whitney said these kinds of differences in experiences early can have major effects later. He likened it to a series of little gusts pushing a sailboat slowly off course until it needs a strong gale to push it back on course.
A goal of the Achieve Program, he said, is to get students to believe they can succeed in the classroom before they believe they can’t.
"If I'm in middle school now and I’m looking around and I’m constantly getting D's and everybody else is getting B's, it's not long before I give up. This is not for me. I'm not going to do well in school," Whitney said. "And when that happens, it takes a herculean effort to get them back on track. So let's do it in elementary schools."
Whitney stressed that the Achieve Program is only a cog in a much larger machine. The district has a range of programs meant to narrow the achievement gap, such as the "cradle to career" initiative.
At Fairview, DeMoss said, there are other programs to help students who are struggling, including A Way With Words and Numbers, for which MU students also volunteer, and Book Buddies, in which parents or grandparents read with students. High school students also help out in classrooms as part of the A+ Schools Program.
These programs are meant to augment the work teachers do every day, Whitney said.
Hancock's first undergraduate degree was in dance from the University of Utah. After that, she taught dance for a few years. Watching students learn sparked her desire to become a teacher.
When she was working with the Achieve Program, she showed up early for the spring semester at MU because the Fairview students were already back in school. She did it to keep fostering trust with them.
Hancock said she developed a strong bond with the girl she mentored first. The girl liked princesses and told Hancock that she kept checking out the same book on princesses from the library.
During a scholastic book fair on campus, Hancock bought a book for beginning readers for the girl. It was about princesses.
One day, the girl told Hancock she had read the book to her mother. Later, side by side in the hallway at Fairview, she read the book to Hancock.
"It was things like that," Hancock said, "that made me realize what I was doing was helping her in some aspects."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.