The UNO Portal School Project is one of eighty-six programs across the country recently awarded the Presidents' Salute for Exemplary Partnerships for Minority Achievement sponsored by the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) and the College Board.
The UNO/New Orleans Public School Project began in the spring of 1986 through the grass roots efforts of UNO's Dr. Joan P. Gipe and Dr. Janet C. Richards, Department of Curriculum and Instruction. The program prepares education majors to be effective urban teachers.
"Initially the collaborative program was to help teacher/education students learn more about teaching at-risk children in urban elementary schools. The university is involved in that the students are actually taking six hours of three-thousand level course credits in reading and language arts methodology," said Gipe.
In the fall of 1989, the project moved from Sylvanie F. Williams School on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. to the New Orleans Free School, an alternative school, at 3601 Camp St. The Free School was one of the eight New Orleans public schools on the chopping block earlier this year; fortunately, the school escaped the axe and remains open.
UNO students meet at the elementary school every Monday and Wednesday morning from eight until eleven throughout the semester.
"Although the UNO students have previously observed classroom situations, this is the first time they actually have to teach students," Gipe said. This is an experience that precedes what people know as the student- teaching experience which takes place the very last semester of their education program, which is really much too late. This project lets the university student know early in the program if he/she is interested in kids. It is tragic for both the student and the children for the student to put in four years of study and then discover that they really dislike kids. We also give the university student the opportunity to work with children at two different grade levels in the Kindergarten through eighth grade so they will know which age group they prefer to teach," she added.
"UNO students also learn how to manage behavior; they are learning so much because they are working with the children, they are learning what the schools are like and what the children are like. We see more of the drug culture and crime wave in the urban schools. All these negative things that are happening in society are all part of these children's lives. Things that happen in a child's life pervade their whole day. Our UNO students being mostly of middle class to upper-middle class background- white females for the most part-have not experienced this environment," Gipe said.
"It is so important for our students because they have not experienced it, they don't know what it's like. Sometimes it is a shock to their system. But, they learn children are children. For the most part, by the end of the semester, they are enthused, excited about their profession."
Liz Casanovas, a UNO senior, said, "We learned how to teach by teaching, real hands-on experience. At first, it was really confusing and it was a lot of work, but I'm real excited about teaching now." In addition to the benefits to the UNO students, the elementary students are exposed to the latest research-based teaching methods, and the Free School classroom teachers are able to observe demonstrations of effective teaching strategies.
"We hear a lot about teacher isolation; once teachers are in their classroom they are there for the day, they don't get to see what other teachers are they are not always able to keep up with the latest techniques. We have enough UNO students so that all the classes are accommodated. The university student has a group of five or so children. The classroom teacher can move from group to group and observe what the UNO student is doing. We use the most recent, most current, research-based kinds of strategies. The classroom teacher actually gets to see these things demonstrated in his/her own classroom with his/her own children and see how the children react," explained Gipe.
For the first time since its inception, the Portal School Project will receive funding. The Louisiana Education Quality Support Fund (more commonly known as 8-G) will provide funds for the next three years so that the Portal School Project can expand its role to include assessing the benefits of the program on the minority, at-risk children involved.
"This funding will allow us to look at the benefits of what we're doing. We've never been able to do that before. Although we think we can say that we've had some impact. Last year, Bob Ferris, the principal of the Free School, was actually called into Superintendent Everett Williams' office to explain the high jump in the achievement test scores, they jumped eleven percentile points for reading and that's a pretty big jump. We'd like to believe that we had something to do with that-it was an unusual, nice kind of increase," said Gipe. "Ferris was called in, like'...were you tampering with the tests.. .' because you know there was a rumor that some of the schools in Jefferson Parish may have been," laughed Gipe. "Actually, we are very proud of the scores,' said Gipe.
In addition to assessing benefits for minority children, the funding will give Gipe and Richards the opportunity to study how using children's literature rather than the typical reader program will affect language and the literacy development of the at-risk students.
"If schools weren't spending so much on reader programs, they would have some money for good children's literature books. We can integrate other areas of the curriculum, such as math and science, into the discussion of children's literature books; books that relate to a child's life more effectively than a reader textbook. Children's literature is just more interesting; the stories are a better approach. Children are interested in stories, and you can't teach anything unless you have someone's attention," Gipe said.