Student-led service project strives to improve parent involvement at local elementary school
As a high-needs school looking to improve the school’s community, Potter Elementary
School has a goal — increase parent and family involvement, and encourage those parents
and families to engage more with their child’s education.
To discuss how to tackle this challenge, administrators from the school met with a group of students from USF’s Exceptional Student Education program to brainstorm ideas for how they, as future teachers, could help support the school’s mission.
The student group considered opportunities available and developed a hands-on activity to host during parent conference night — a melted crayon art project that engaged with the school’s students and their families and encouraged them to learn more about what their children are doing throughout the school day.
This project was one of three Community Service Learning Projects created by USF students as part of the curriculum for the course “Context and Foundations of Exceptional Student Education." The project, which requires students to work in groups to provide service to the school community, was created to teach future educators how to meet the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students with disabilities.
Course instructor Sarah Semon, Ph.D., said participating in experiential learning opportunities like this project allows students to not only learn important skills such as communication and teamwork, but to also strengthen their understanding of the needs of today’s students and the schools that serve them.
“The service learning project is all about giving back,” Semon said. “They are there learning about all of the things that happen in schools and what teachers do, and then they give back to the school for all of the learning that they’re getting.”
To get started, the team of students hosted a Crayon Drive in partnership with the
SCATTER Honors Program to collect as many crayons as possible. Over the next few weeks,
the team collected hundreds of crayons and met regularly to discuss the logistics
of the project, including what materials need to be gathered and which tasks each
team member is responsible for.
Coordinating meetings and dividing up responsibilities are just some of the tasks the aspiring educators will experience when they become full-time teachers, and the group agreed that projects like this help them prepare to work alongside their future colleagues.
“Working as a team and making sure that everyone is on board in communication, that is key when you’re in a group of people and working with a bunch of personalities and different lives,” said group project member Lourdia Jaboin.
Located in Tampa, Potter Elementary serves students in kindergarten through grade
5. The school is part of Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Achievement Schools program, a group of 50 high-needs schools that receive focused support and additional
resources to help them improve their school performance grade to a “C” or better for
three straight years.
Meredith Mullen, a lead teacher at Potter, said trying to increase parent involvement is one of the focuses as part of the school’s improvement plan. She said the activity developed by the USF student group made the students at Potter excited to attend the event with their families.
“If we find that home-to-school connection, we see an increase in so many indicators for our students, like behavior, attendance and academics,” Mullen said.
Research shows that parent, family and community involvement results in higher academic performance
and school improvement, and Semon says it’s something that all schools struggle with.
It’s an especially important issue for exceptional student education (ESE) teachers,
because in conjunction with their varied roles, they also find themselves regularly
advocating on behalf of their students for different accommodations and teaching styles
that are more attuned to their needs.
“Trying to increase parent involvement, trying to increase the capacity of the school… and the challenges that arise from coordinating and working together, it’s building them as a team and it’s building their understanding of how collaboration happens and how they can have an impact,” Semon said.
Now that the project is complete, the USF team will take what they’ve learned and
experienced at Potter and share it with the other groups in their class during the
Special Education Teachers of Promise Celebration of Service. The semester-long experience
served as a learning opportunity that shapes their perceptions of the students and
school community, and will help build their teaching style and philosophy as they
continue in the ESE program.
“Study after study has shown that the more your parents are involved in your education, the more you as a student are likely to succeed,” said student and project team member Amy Laks. “Especially at a school like Potter, I think that having as many parents involved with their student is going to be the best thing for them.”