University highlights partnership for education and research with area schools

University of Nevada, Reno faculty and student presence strengthens collaborations between the College of Education and local schools

12/12/2013 - By: Nicole Shearer
Through the University of Nevada, Reno’s SUPER program, both undergraduate and graduate students can apply what they learn in class to real-life classroom settings.

School University Partnership for Education and Research is an initiative designed to strengthen the University of Nevada, Reno College of Education's outreach into local, Washoe County schools. The program, funded through a generous donation, operates on four guiding principles all designed around the idea of offering a mutually beneficial relationship. Through SUPER, the College of Education:
1.     Works collaboratively to support elementary and middle school student achievement;
2.     Supports professional development by working with teachers in the schools;
3.     Promotes the training and development of University students;
4.     Works to promote inquiry and research activities.

With these four goals in mind, representatives of the SUPER program worked with the Washoe County School District to identify three schools to participate. Alice Maxwell Elementary School, Kate Smith Elementary School and Sparks Middle School were all schools that met SUPER criteria.

"One of the things we were looking for when selecting these schools was that most of the faculty were interested in working with us," Margaret Ferrara, College of Education associate professor and SUPER co-coordinator, said. "Everyone had to agree that what we were trying to do would be a benefit to them. We were not interested in imposing this on a school and knew that in order for it to be successful, it needed to be collaborative."

Now in its second official year, the SUPER program continues its work with the same three schools as many school faculty have come to appreciate and rely on what the program offers.

"One of the key advantages of being part of the SUPER alliance is the sharing of best practices either through personal development opportunities or through University students spending time in classrooms," Russell Hunter, Sparks Middle School teacher and SUPER facilitator for the school, said. "Having practicum students and interns from the University allows learning to take place for the lead teachers as well as the University students. This sharing of information is a fantastic opportunity to practice new learning strategies and actually field test them in practical situations. In turn, the use of these strategies allows for current teachers to learn or be reminded of new strategies to implement in their class." 

With the SUPER program, pre-service learning teachers work in classrooms allowing for more individualized instruction of students through tutoring and small group instruction to enhance student learning.

"Used correctly, practicum students are a key instruction tool for teachers in the classroom," Hunter said.  "This is one reason why the SUPER group at Sparks Middle School is looking at the co-teaching model as a professional development opportunity this year. Utilizing practicum students as co-teachers in the classroom allows for smaller group activities, including intervention groups, learning centers and individual instruction for students needing additional support." 

All three schools allow pre-service undergraduate and graduate students in their classes, with two of the schools hosting supervised groups of more than 20 University students in 2013. At Alex Maxwell Elementary School and Sparks Middle School, the University students and a faculty member spend an entire day per week at the school, working closely with teachers, engaging in independent but supervised teaching, and receiving feedback on their delivery and management of instruction.

"This agreement has provided University students with an opportunity to be engaged with what happens in the classroom setting early on," Bob Ives, College of Education associate professor and SUPER director, said. "Students are able to apply what they are learning, then go back to share what they observed and learned through reflection."

In addition to the University's pre-service teachers, University faculty have provided support for teacher inquiry groups at all three of the SUPER schools. Ten teachers at Alice Maxwell Elementary School meet regularly with Ives to collaborate on the school's new science, technology, engineering and mathematics emphasis (STEM). At Sparks Middle School, teachers from all content areas work with Ferrara to use a team collaborative approach to focus on student engagement. Teachers develop and share student learning engagement strategies, both during course time and in their meetings.

"The major benefit resulting from SUPER is increased communication among the teachers participating in the group," Hunter said. "The SUPER group was able to look at the different strategies and figure out ways to adapt them to different areas of the curriculum.  Also, teachers were able to provide feedback and ideas to others about improving strategies currently being utilized in their classroom."

At Kate Smith Elementary School, the focus of the SUPER program is on early childhood education, which covers pre-K through 3rd grade. The University has been working with PreK-3rd education, a national initiative to transform how children ages 3 to 8 learn in schools. According to the Foundation for Child Development, research shows that the cornerstone of a successful education is the learning that takes place from PreK through 3rd grade. There is, however, little instructional coordination from year to year, even within the same school, much less across a school district or a state. The SUPER program at Kate Smith is researching ways to change that. Funding for this initiative comes primarily from a local early childhood advisory council grant, Title I and collaboration with the Washoe County School District's Striving Readers grant. 

"In the past, the PreK program was thought of as separate," Melissa Burnham, College of Education associate professor and SUPER co-coordinator, said. "Our work shares what the standards and expectations are for young children and is very eye opening for those who don't understand what's taking place."

As the SUPER program continues to develop, the goal is for continued meaningful outreach within the community and to showcase best practices nationally. Many of the group's finding from the last year have been shared at national teacher conferences and the SUPER group has even been invited to attend the WCSD principal trainings each year. For more information about the SUPER program, contact Melissa Burnham, mburnham@unr.edu, Margaret Ferrara, ferrara@unr.edu or Bob Ives, rives@unr.edu.


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