Post-secondary students are needed in public schools

Near the end of a regular school day in a low-income urban area, a muscular varsity athlete sits cross-legged on the floor in a corner of a grade 5 classroom. He leans intently towards a small boy reading out loud from an open book. From time to time, the athlete points to a word and he and the child sound it out together. Down the hall, a group of three science students lead a grade 6 class through an exploration of the kinds of chemical reactions that provoke volcanic eruptions. In the entrance foyer, a class of grade 4s mingles with five university students as they clean their paintbrushes after completing a wall mural depicting what “caring for others” means.

The bell rings. The doors to the classrooms swing open. The athlete emerges and is immediately surrounded by a clamor of kids calling out his name. They race to the gym for their volleyball coaching session. Seven or eight kids run by chanting “green team,” “green team,” green team” as they dart into different rooms and emerge carrying compost buckets full of lunch remains. They head to the side door chattering about where they are going to plant the seeds they started in indoor pots a couple of weeks ago. They are met by an agriculture student who herds them out to the school’s garden where, after depositing their treasure in the compost bin, the kids will learn about companion planting.

This scenario represents what I am convinced is the form of community-university engagement that has the most potential for positive impact in both the short and long term. Over the past thirteen years I have seen amazing things happen when university students connect with children and youth in public schools, especially elementary schools. I have seen university students take part in an impressive array of activities: 1:1 literacy tutoring; leading hands-on science labs; tutoring in after-school homework clubs; mentoring high school students as they undertake science fair projects; doing math projects; giving music concerts or providing music instruction; encouraging creative writing; making murals, quilts, sculptures, and other artistic projects; playing sports and games; providing social support to grade 7s making the transition to high school; cooking; and gardening. University students and youth have undertaken community mapping projects and other innovative projects designed to strengthen the community around the school. They have also helped build school gardens and improve playgrounds. This list does not exhaust all the possibilities.

The benefits

These activities benefit everybody. For example, teachers who have had students from the University of British Columbia volunteering in their schools doing activities like the ones listed above say their students are more motivated to learn and stay in school. For some children, having a tutor has meant catching up to their grade level in reading or finally understanding a foundational math concept. For others, getting 1:1 attention has led to success in school for the first time. For some children and youth who are already doing well but looking for more stimulation, connecting with university students provides the inspiration and guidance they need to adventure beyond the standard curriculum. For university students, acting as a role model can lead to increased maturity as well as the development of specific skills such as planning, problem-solving and communication skills.

“I have really learned the value of empathy and the importance of having passion and purpose for what I do. I think I have definitely learned a lot of people skills and through interacting with others, my attitude towards others and life in general has become more positive.”—UBC student volunteer in a Vancouver school 

Knowing how powerful the relationships between post-secondary students and younger kids can be, I would love to see every post-secondary student in Canada doing volunteer work in public schools. This could mean engaging in schools in their own community or getting involved in service to schools in remote communities, e.g., doing online tutoring. I do not think post-secondary students’ participation in school or after-school programs should be mandatory. This can create an unhealthy dynamic. But if engaging with kids in schools became a cool thing to do and a significant percentage of the approximately two million post-secondary students in Canada decided to volunteer in schools, they could transform the education system.

Post-secondary students would learn the kinds of skills employers say many graduates are lacking, from the basics like showing up on time to more advanced skills like group facilitation and team leadership.  Students could also develop their understanding of their academic fields. Nothing pushes you to fully grasp a key concept in your field of study like knowing you will have to explain it to a ten year old. Post-secondary students would also benefit from rising to the challenge of meeting the high expectations of the children they are mentoring as well as the teachers who are counting on their help. Being in the position of being needed helps students move into the adult world of citizenship.

Children and youth would benefit from getting individual attention from people who are older but not so old as to have lost their awesomeness quotient. With the help of university and college students, teachers whose ability to offer enriched learning experiences has been limited by funding constraints would be able to revive activities such as music, drama, art, and sports.

How could this work?

Right now, the engagement of post-secondary students in schools is mostly being organized off the sides of people’s desks. In the U.S. there are some universities that have long-standing institutional partnerships with local public schools (e.g., the University of Pennsylvania). But as far as I know, in Canada, this kind of comprehensive, institutional engagement is rare. There is great work being done by student volunteers, faculty members, academic departments, and other institutional units in Canada (For example, Let’s Talk Science is a national charitable organization that brings science students into schools. For UBC examples see the SSHRC-funded Think & Eat Green @ Schools project and the Math department outreach programs. But these initiatives, as valuable as they are, engage only a fraction of the enormous pool of talent and energy that could potentially be mobilized.

How could more of Canada’s post-secondary student population be brought into public schools? It would require the development of methods to prepare post-secondary students to effectively play roles as mentors, coaches, tutors, activity facilitators and project leaders. It would require the creation of structures and processes to organize the work of particular students in particular settings. This work does require planning and oversight. Teachers do need support to integrate student volunteers into their schools.  But expensive bureaucracies should not be needed. Those who are already doing this work have developed models that can be replicated. Some research has been done about how to make this kind of engagement effective (e.g., see the Harvard Family Research Project report on after-school programs. Indeed, educators in relevant academic disciplines could be important contributors to the design of school-based programs.

Given the diversity of the settings where this activity would take place, local decision-making about how to adapt models and principles to local conditions would be essential. For this work to succeed, some or all of the key players would need to come together: provincial governments, school districts, universities and colleges, teachers’ associations and unions, post-secondary student associations, and parents. In some communities, it is likely that organizations in the non-profit sector would also want to be involved. Based on my experience at UBC, I expect private sector businesses would be interested in supporting this kind of initiative.

Scaling up the kind of activity now taking place only in a few pockets of innovation would require education leaders and decision-makers to think creatively about how the pieces of the education system fit together. It would require political will. Getting more post-secondary student volunteers into public schools would cost money. But it would be an investment whose benefits would certainly outweigh its costs. Is this a pipe dream or a viable vision?

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.