Feature Stories

Pepin Students Come for the Fun and Stay for the Learning with USF Pre-Service Teachers

Pepin Academy and the USF College of Education have a unique partnership that is both a model for a reciprocal educational relationship and a boon for our local community. Three USF College of Education faculty, Dr. Stacy Hahn, Dr. David Allsopp, and Dr. David Hoppey have worked with Pepin to build up a strong year-round connection culminating in a free, four-week summer institute for interested Pepin students. 

Crisha Scolaro, David Hoppey, Stacy Hahn, and David Allsopp

                                    Crisha Scolaro, David Hoppey, Stacy Hahn, and David Allsopp

The summer institute program allows special education pre-service teachers from the USF College of Education the unique opportunity to develop and implement, with the guidance of their professors, an academic summer school curriculum. As Allsopp emphasizes, "It's not a camp, it's school."

Pepin is a tuition-free public charter school serving elementary to 12th graders who have a range of special needs from attention deficit disorder to autism to chronic health disorders.

Crisha Scolaro, the founder of Pepin, and Gerri Henry, Pepin's Director of Curriculum and Instruction, are thrilled that they are able to offer this program for interested students, a feat which would be impossible without USF students and faculty available to design and implement it.

As Henry notes, "Often the students lose some of what they had gained during the school year" over the long, lazy Florida summers. The institute keeps kids engaged for perpetual learning and growth, and combats what educators call "summer regression."

Although Pepin does not require its students to participate in the summer institute, the benefits are exponential to those parents and students who see the value in summer education. The goal of USF faculty and students is to make the institute a positive experience so kids will come for the fun and stay for the learning.

The USF students begin preparing for the summer institute as juniors; and Hahn, Allsopp, and Hoppey, as well as several doctoral students, work with them throughout the year to build the skills they need to be able to teach the institute in the summer. Early in the year, the students visit Pepin and also participate in field experiences in other school settings in order to build their skills and confidence in preparation for essentially flying solo during the summer institute.

Before the institute begins, the teacher candidates design lessons, set up classrooms, and provide instruction to students with learning related disabilities. Each day consists of reading and math, including intensive interventions with selected students, recess (often free play indoors to avoid the heat), and a choice from among science, history, and social studies.

This structure gives the USF students the chance to be creative and also to learn how to plan, collaborate, and co-teach with one another, as Allsopp explained. Furthermore, as is always the case with instructor-led service opportunities, the faculty members help their students "implement evidence-based instructional practices," he continued.

Having their professors available is a boost to the student teachers' confidence to deal with potential behavioral issues of their students. It enables them to take some risks, because they have experienced faculty on hand to help manage any potential problems.

The summer institute tends to draw between 65-85 Pepin students and approximately 25-30 USF pre-service teachers participate. Each co-teaching team is assigned to instruct groups of approximately six to eight kids. The small class size allows the USF students to tailor the curriculum to meet the specific needs of the Pepin students. Allsopp said, "I don't know of anywhere else that has students doing a targeted institute like this during the summer."

Pepin is the only public school of its kind in the country that accepts children with a range of special needs. It is a "very accepting safe place," says Scolaro, where children are not ostracized for being different. These are all children who for one reason or another needed what she called "targeted interaction."

Scolaro said, "It's huge. It's a miracle: 80% of our students graduate with a standard high school diploma." Although their students are not "mainstreamed," Scolaro said, "we create our own inclusion. [Our students] are not excluded from anything."

Frequently throughout the day, the Frozen anthem "Let It Go" plays and the children, each of whom are dealing with their own physical and emotional issues in a very communal way, sing quietly to themselves, "Let it go, let it go, I'm one with the earth and sky. Let it go, let it go, you'll never see me cry."

Scolaro believes the Pepin–USF partnership is "invaluable." She said of Allsopp, Hahn, and Hoppey, "This is their passion as well as our passion" and in fact the partnership has led to Pepin hiring six former USF special education pre-service teachers to teach various grade levels.

USF pre-service teachers use creative teaching methods during the Pepin summer institute.

  USF pre-service teachers use creative teaching methods during the Pepin summer institute.

The Pepin model is so successful that it continues to expand to other regions. Last year they opened a Riverview campus. This school year a Pasco campus opened in New Port Richey. Pepin is also looking at expanding in Pinellas County in the near future.

Scolaro said, gesturing to the students seated in the classroom, "These seats are very valuable to save children." She helped found the school when she was told that her own child "would fall through the cracks." Scolaro tries to impart on the USF students the impact they will have on the lives and well-being of the children in their classrooms as well as the impact on the parents of those children.

Pre-service USF students Sarah Arreola and James Jacobelli with students from the summer institute.

            Pre-service USF students Sarah Arreola and James Jacobelli with students from the summer institute.

Sarah Arreola, one of the USF pre-service teachers said, "I've learned a lot from the kids." She studied nursing in high school and is trained as a Certified Nursing Assistant, which she feels is particularly useful in working with her class, including some students with rare health related disorders.

She and her co-teacher James Jacobelli prepared for the myriad health related issues they might face in the classroom in addition to scanning Pinterest to find creative craft ideas to make the course material more visually stimulating for their students. The skill level in their classroom ranged from those who don't know their letters yet all the way up to kids reading at a fourth grade reading level, so Jacobelli confided, "You learn a lot about accommodation." They even created little photo books for each of the kids in the class featuring the child as the main character in their own story. Reflecting on his experiences teaching at Pepin, Jacobelli said, "Now that I'm sitting here talking to you, [I realize] we did a lot this summer."

And Arreola said that when people ask why she was going into special education, she says, quite simply, "Why not?" Being part of the Pepin–USF partnership has helped solidify her career choice and made her proud to be a special education teacher.