Parents gleamed with pride as their children performed choregraphed dance routines
and maze movements.
The performance was part of the closing ceremonies for the USF Pepin Summer Institute, a summer enrichment program for students enrolled at Pepin Academies, a public charter school in Tampa that serves students with specific learning related disabilities.
After participating in the four-week summer experience, which provides University of South Florida (USF) College of Education students majoring in exceptional student education with teaching opportunities, students at Pepin gained new skills in the arts and physical activity while curbing the typical “summer slide,” a phenomenon that can occur when students are out of school for an extended period of time.
Among the crowd stood parent Alisha Petti and her mother, Rebie Allan. Both Petti and her mother witnessed firsthand the impact the summer Institute had on nine-year-old Aubrey, a first-time participant in the program.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I’m so impressed,” Petti said. “(Student teachers) are just so enthusiastic and excited to be here, to bring in new ideas and approaches to learning.”
“She’s been so happy to get up, to get dressed and go to school,” Allan said. “When I picked her up last time, she said, ‘I want to be a teacher. I want to teach math. I want to teach like Ms. Michaela.’”
Through a partnership that formed a decade ago, the USF Pepin Summer Institute enables
exceptional student education majors in the College of Education to gain practical
teaching experience by giving them opportunities to lead their own classrooms and
develop their own lesson plans in reading, math and social skills.
For students enrolled at Pepin, it’s an opportunity to learn in a way that’s exciting and tailored to their needs, says Betsy Doone, PhD, an instructor and the director of the summer program.
“The purpose of the Pepin Summer Institute is twofold: providing real-world opportunities for our pre-service teachers to practice their skills, while implementing teaching and behavior management strategies they have learned in their coursework,” Dr. Doone said. “Additionally, the program provides Pepin students with a more relaxed learning environment and with a range of engaging English language arts and math lessons.”
This year, the program continued its their partnership with Arts4All Florida, a nonprofit organization that provides arts education activities for and by individuals with disabilities and is located in USF’s College of Education. Activities that students participated in through Arts4All include fine arts, music class and dance activities.
New this year, the Summer Institute also welcomed “Minds in Motion,” an organization that’s created its own movement maze designed to stimulate sensory,
motor and neural development.
Noelle Lynch, a USF alumna who graduated from the Exceptional Student Education program, worked alongside Dr. Doone to facilitate the new activity. She says the practice of movement helps not only improve systems in the body that control a person’s senses. It also eliminates challenges often seen in students with disabilities, such as the struggle to concentrate on an assignment without constantly moving in their seat.
“(Student’s) senses are basically their input and if we can help integrate that input through balance, movement and vestibular strengthening activities, that’s going to help with their output,” Lynch said. “So, we’ll see improvements in their ability to focus on reading materials and their ability to spend less time trying to simply sit.”
During their outside activity time, students spent 30 minutes going through a maze that includes exercises related to balancing, hand-eye coordination, visual focus and tracking, crossing the midline, vestibular stimulation and motor planning.
In the classroom, student teachers from USF led lesson plans and activities based on a curriculum they themselves create from the start.
For Noelle Jahnsen and Shelley Ingram, two student teachers in the program, having
the freedom to choose what they teach enabled them to reflect on what’s often left
out in school curriculum.
“We did activity lessons on Juneteenth, recycling and on endangered animals and we were able to see student reactions, which was so overwhelmingly positive,” Jahnsen said. “Being able to bring in different kinds of representation into the classroom, whether it’s through books or lessons, it’s something I wish to see in the education system as a whole.”
While they were both nervous to teach high school students for the first time, Ingram says the time she spent in the classroom taught her plenty about what it means to be an educator.
“I think we grew a lot just learning how to work with older students versus knowing how to work with younger students,” Ingram said. “We had a whole plan when we began (at Pepin), but once we got to know them, we had to rework everything. Sometimes, even in the middle of a lesson!”
Noelle Jahnsen (left) and Shelley Ingram (right) pictured above.
This fall, Jahnsen and Ingram will begin their final year in USF’s Exceptional Student Education program. Having spent her summer at Pepin, Jahnsen says, has served as confirmation that she’s on the right path with her chosen major and career.
“Now that I’m going through the program and developing all these new perspectives, I realize that I want to teach to the full color of a rainbow,” Jahnsen said. “I really think that in a teaching position, you do make a change. It is crazy and it is overwhelming, but you are there. You are the one with the kids.”
USF's Exceptional Student Education Program is designed to prepare future teachers who work to enhance their students’ lives through advocacy, teaching and service.
Through field experiences and integrated coursework, students develop an informed perspective on the issues impacting individuals with exceptionalities. In the final year of the program, students have the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in their coursework to a paid paraprofessional position with Hillsborough County Public Schools.