By Jenny Wells, Whitney Harder
(July 7, 2015) — When Ann Kingsolver, former director of the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center, began speaking with grandparents raising grandchildren in Appalachian communities, two things became clear to her. First, these grandparents need a break every now and then. Second, they may not always feel comfortable helping their child with the curriculum offered in schools today.
So the idea for UK Tomorrow Corps was born, tackling both issues of respite care and education enrichment. Eventually it expanded beyond the idea of aiding grandparent caregivers to support many types of families and students across Appalachia.
Kingsolver also realized the program could benefit another group: UK students.
In total, 29 UK interns have taken it upon themselves to tutor students ages K-12 throughout 19 Eastern Kentucky counties.
“One of the main things that we are interested in is creating long-term mentoring cycles, a mentoring relationship, with the young folks,” said Shane Barton, assistant director of the UK Appalachian Center and director of UK Tomorrow Corps. “Not only is curriculum important and covering some of the math and literacy work over the summer, but what may be more important is creating those positive mentoring relationships."
For Gabrielle Davis and Fallon Olexa, the opportunity was a one-of-a-kind professional experience.
“Technically, teachers don’t really get internships,” said Olexa, a special education senior at UK, noting that most of their experience is gained through student teaching or observing local teachers. “I wanted to do something different."
Olexa joined Davis, an elementary education senior, in Floyd County, Kentucky, for the month of June to host tutoring sessions at the Minnie Branch of the Floyd County Public Library. Both are from Illinois and were excited to experience Appalachia for the first time.
"It's just been a really amazing experience, because you're in a beautiful place and the people are awesome," Davis said.
And although they think the mountains are a bit frightening to drive on, they say any other stereotype about the region simply isn’t true.
“It’s not what I expected it would be like, but I wouldn’t say it’s too much different (from Illinois),” Olexa explained.
While there, both worked one-on-one with children, mainly kindergarten through middle school, on math and reading skills and would incorporate historical or science concepts whenever they could. The program ensures that children don’t lose certain skills before the start of a new year and can receive the extra personal attention they sometimes need outside the classroom.
“You know, we can really get down and see where their problem is or see what they're not understanding,” Davis said.
Each UK Tomorrow Corps intern, selected through an application and interview process, was prepared for their placement throughout the year. Beginning with an “Introduction to Appalachia,” UK students first became familiar and comfortable with the region. Partners on campus, such as the Partnership Institute for Math and Science Education Reform (PIMSER), as well as the Carnegie Center For Literacy and Learning in Lexington, supported additional tracks of training in literacy and language arts and mathematics.
Although none of the children she worked with had special education needs, for Olexa, the experience in lesson planning and figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of each child was invaluable.
“It’s been cool to see the process of them growing and starting to actually like bring the sounds together to make the words to making a sentence to then reading a book,” she said. “We’ve only been here for four weeks and in those four weeks the kids have made that much progress.”
With the support of the local library and its resources, Davis and Olexa tutored five hours a day, four days a week. And just as the program and students have benefited from the library, the library has benefitted from the program. Visitors from surrounding counties are beginning to utilize the library, first for the tutoring program, then returning to see what else it has to offer.
“We’ve had people come 30 miles just traveling for tutoring,” said Marilyn Bailey, branch manager of the Minnie Branch. “And they’re coming here and checking out books and getting cards that they’ve never had.”
Bailey says since the UK Tomorrow Corps program began at the library, there has been an increase in books checked out, computers used and new library cards administered. Tutoring sessions will continue at the library through July with two new UK interns.
Aside from spending most of their time mentoring younger students, Davis and Olexa explored the surrounding communities and people, and lived in nearby Wayland, Kentucky, thanks to Mayor Jerry Fultz who provided Wayland’s community house.
“It was a way of supporting the program because I believe in the program,” Fultz said. “I think the need is here; the 'want to' is here. So providing the housing was just a small piece for us to play in order to have a greater impact down the road.”
UK Tomorrow Corps is having an impact not only on the children and their education, but also on the entire community and the UK interns.
Fultz said the interns “are having an impact with the students that they’re coming in contact with, the different age groups and maybe even the parents and the community as a whole at the library. But I’d like to think that they, being from outside the area, have found that maybe the stereotypical vision that people have maybe is not true. And what better way to change it than having someone from out of the area come in and actually look and see firsthand and meet people that have grown up here, that live here, that call this place home.”
And he was right.
“Some of the smartest people that I’ve met have been here and the students here are very smart, and people stereotype them wrong,” Davis said. “I cannot sit here and think, ‘oh this student is this so he’s going to be like this.’ All students are going to be different.”
While the program has provided a one-of-a-kind opportunity to UK students like Davis and Olexa, not all of the interns are aspiring educators. Some are medical students in the Rural Physician Leadership Program experiencing service in rural communities, and for others, UK Tomorrow Corps offered an opportunity to give back to their hometown.
“It’s through this tutoring that I’m hopefully able to give the students in my home community, who may not otherwise be able to receive individualized academic tutoring, some of the tools necessary to foster a successful future, regardless of the path they choose in life,” said Kody Ruark, a senior history major from Carlisle, Kentucky.
Ruark tutors in Bath County Monday through Wednesday and Nicholas County, about 35 miles north, on Thursday and Friday.
“I have worked really hard and been blessed with being able to attend what I truly consider to be one of the best universities in the country. It’s my hope that through this program and programs like it that other students will be given the tools to attain a successful future and make the world brighter for those around them,” he said.
For more information about UK Tomorrow Corps, visit https://appalachiancenter.as.uky.edu.