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Schools of Hope puts hope back in school

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Program gives students a chance to catch up to their peers and to find the confidence and stability they need to learn
Teacher Megan Brickner helps students with their homework

Teacher Megan Brickner helps students with their homework

Students at work on their white boards

Students at work on their white boards

Great reads for 100 Book Challenge Time

Great reads for 100 Book Challenge Time

Wanted: A skilled, passionate educator who can discover each of her students' strengths and challenges, affirm and encourage them on their learning journey and help each child succeed—all while effectively managing a classroom.

Enter Megan Brickner, lead teacher for the Schools of Hope after school program at the Salvation Army Kroc Center. Brickner leads a class of Brookside Elementary 1st through 3rd graders in intensive literacy instruction four days a week. This winter, she's even tromping through the snow with her capable classroom aid to pick the kids up after school and walk them back to the Kroc Center. Her classroom is filled with posters of things such as positive behavior, making inferences and tricky homonyms illustrated by her students. 

To qualify for the program, children have to be at least a year behind in reading and writing. Many have even more catching up to do. Some students are English Language Learners (ELLs) who simply need extra exposure to the language.

For non-ELL students, Brickner says, they're often behind for other reasons. “Often we'll find there's an undiagnosed learning disability.”

But literacy is even more complex than individualized learning styles.

“They have a lot of other issues in their lives that they're dealing with,” Brickner says of her students. “They're so focused on their safety and emotional and physical well-being that the learning comes second sometimes. They don't have a lot of consistent stamina for learning.”

This factor, combined with the range of her students' ages and skill sets, makes Brickner's job even more challenging. She cites her background as a Montessori teacher as a useful springboard for her current role.

“Montessori is highly focused on differentiation and diverse groups,” she explains, “and here we have multi grade levels and kids at very different stages who have very different needs.”

Brickner, who holds a degree in English and Elementary Education from Grand Valley State University as well as a Masters in Education, uses the beginning of class to assist her students with their homework. Many children have trouble focusing or find their assignments difficult. Brickner makes the rounds with her aid, helping kids sound out words and boosting their confidence with phrases like, “I know you're really good at these 'Magic E's!'”

Brickner confides, “The beauty and one of the hindrances of the program is that we're taking a bunch of kids who have been yelled at in the classroom all day or have felt that they haven't been successful in school all day, so they already have a wall built up and defense mechanisms ready to go.”

While breaking down that wall of defense can be a long and difficult process, Brickner finds that the unique class dynamics allow some kids to shine.

“They can step up and show their knowledge in a way they might not have been able to in the regular classroom.”

Last year, Brickner piloted the EBLI (Evidence Based Literacy Instruction) program, which is based on individual phonemic awareness. Each child uses a white board and marker while Brickner demonstrates patterns in language. The lessons require that students say the phonemes aloud while practicing on their board.

“It takes a lot of consistent practice, especially with these kids. They get frustrated, they get down on themselves a little bit, but with a lot of practice, they get it, and they get excited.”

For Brickner, that excitement is one of the best parts of the job. Many of her students lack confidence in their learning or perhaps have had a negative image of school projected on them by a parent or caregiver who had a bad experience. When they realize that they can succeed, Brickner says, “then they're more confident to raise their hand, to want to be in class, to not want to avoid school so much, to want to try some things in their lessons rather than just goofing off—those strongly built coping mechanisms they have for just surviving when they don't know what's going on.”

In Brickner's experience, individual success and a safe classroom environment lead her students to “open up to each other and encourage each other, rather than be competitive.” It's imperative for Brickner that her students know that “someone cares for them, is rooting for them, wants to see them succeed and has high expectations.”

Brickner fits that mandate to a T. Her goal for each of her students is to get them caught up “so they can interact with their peers in their own classrooms and own settings,” and she works toward that goal with skill and compassion.

The need is high for initiatives such as the Schools of Hope after school program at the Kroc Center, but, as with many programs, funding is precarious. When asked what we need to do to continue improving literacy in our community, Brickner championed small group settings that can supplement not only students' learning but also their social skills.

The most important thing, she says, is to provide “consistent, safe places for kids to go.”

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