FILLING THE GAP

By Jennifer Jones, communications director, Bennion Center

No funding. No teachers. No problem. Wait, what?

That’s not the typical scenario when community agencies are scrambling for ways to help families and children during the summer months. But four students working through the University of Utah Bennion Center and AmeriCorps took a dire situation and turned it around.

Shannon McCosh, U Bennion student volunteers reading with elementary school students at Neighborhood House.

The Salt Lake City School District could only provide for a five-week summer school program at Mt. View Elementary. Located in the Glendale area, the school serves students who might otherwise be spending a great deal of time on their own while their family members work.  

When Bennion Center students heard the district was unable to sustain funding for the program for the remainder of the summer, they jumped in and offered to help. The students, sponsored by AmeriCorps, offered to create a curriculum and teach it so the summer program could run an additional four weeks. Now instead of sitting home watching television, students in kindergarten through sixth grades used science, literature and art to learn about the environment.

“My co-workers and I have collaborated to make a unit and lesson plans that center on different aspects of the environment,” said Shannon McCosh, one of the students who designed the expanded program and an elementary education major. “Week one is reduce, recycle, re-use. Week two is air quality, week three is ecosystems and week four is personal impact.”

She used art and literature to make learning lively. Madelyn Montgomery, a biology major, was excited about the opportunity to share her love of science.

“Normally we are tutoring students using Next Steps (a reading program), but in this program, we are each teaching a class, mine being science,” Montgomery said.

Sheridan Dastrup, a graduate student pursing a master’s degree in school counseling, said she wanted to work in the extended program because she loves the Glendale community.

“The community that surrounds these students is always looking out for the students’ best interests and always trying to get them a step ahead even when there are barriers. It is beautiful to be a part of something like that.”

Each woman is an AmeriCorps member and volunteers about 20 hours per week. AmeriCorps is a national service program that brings people together to meet community needs, typically in education. Cassi Simmons is the program director for the Bennion Center’s Utah Reads program, also funded through AmeriCorps. 

“AmeriCorps wants people to be engaged in service not just to improve communities, but to be better citizens,” Simmons says. “They know it’s difficult for students to give up their time for service. So, this partnership is an opportunity for students to serve and have an educational award to continue improving themselves as well.”

Simmons says students can earn up to $1,200 per year for 300 hours of service. She recognizes that no one is likely to get rich from the award but there are other advantages to AmeriCorps service.

“AmeriCorps is a recognizable program that gives you a leg up in the job hunting experience as well,” she says.

Montgomery says, “My favorite thing about this job was watching students grow from start to finish and seeing the ah-ha moments along the way.”

Dastrup said, “I love the problem-solving and the idea of taking barriers away for students who may have them in place.”

“Everything is student centered and inquiry and fact based,” McCosh added. “We get them to be creative and we teach by asking them questions. This way they get to explore their own answers and come up with solutions.” The result? “So far, the kids seem to like it and I definitely love it!”

For more information about how to volunteer statewide through AmeriCorps, please go here. For information about volunteering with AmeriCorps through the Bennion Center, email cassi.simmons@utah.edu.