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Bonds are Forming Between Schools

Richard James
Rollins associate professor Richard James helps Fern Creek students with a Lego robotics project.
A longtime partnership between Rollins College and Fern Creek Elementary School has boosted the school’s academic performance. More important, it may be changing young students’ aspirations.

Many of Fern Creek’s 320 students come from families that are dysfunctional, poor or both. Three-quarters of the children come from minority families; about 83% receive free or reduced-price lunches, and almost a quarter are homeless. Rollins began a mentoring program at the school nine years ago, when Fern Creek got a D grade from the state. Improvement was quick, and gains have remained consistent: Since 2004, the school has received one C, two B’s and four A’s.

One of the keys to change, says Rollins biology professor Eileen Gregory, was hidden away in the school’s storage closets. Gregory, who started the science mentoring program, and her colleagues salvaged old science equipment that had been stored away at the school and created an independent laboratory where teachers can set up experiments before introducing them to their classes, with help from community volunteers and from Rollins students, who make up about half of the 125-strong volunteer force.

In addition, principal Patrick Galatowitsch is encouraging Fern Creek’s teachers to introduce science and math into other classes to promote awareness of the subjects’ big role in everyday life. Gregory illustrates the point in her Rollins classes by asking her students to flip through any day’s edition of the local newspaper. At least 50% of the articles have some type of science or math angle to them, she says.

So far, more than 180 students from Fern Creek and 100 from Rollins have gone through various initiatives of the science mentorship program.

Rollins also introduces the children to a day of college, bringing them to the Rollins campus to shadow their older mentors. It’s helping to change the children’s sense of possibilities from “Should I go to college?” to “Where should I go to college?”

“It’s great to watch the interaction,” Gregory says. Rollins is now working on a proposal to follow the children through middle school and maybe even high school.