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Partnership with College helps build a bridge over poverty

There is a common refrain that students at Downtown Academy fall into when faced with a tough decision: "Never give up."

That "never give up" attitude is also showing success academically, as students overcome initial risk factors faced when they first started attending the school. That's because, while most of the children at Downtown Academy have grown up amidst poverty, inconsistent or unstable home lives, violence, their parents' low level of education and other factors, these children are showing they can recoup lost ground and catch up to their middle-class peers. And that success is partly due to a unique partnership between the school, the community, and faculty and students from the University of Georgia College of Education.

"Downtown Academy is a piece of a much larger picture," said Patrick Ennis, Downtown Academy's head of school. "To bring these kids from a chaotic environment and provide them a consistent, safe, loving environment, they'll know how to experience that not only as kids, but as adults as well."

"To really see these kids take hold of these concepts, and not just be learners but also grow up to be parents, spouses, future community leaders - these are distinctions that many of these children aren't likely getting elsewhere."


Customized education

Started by Downtown Ministries, which is known in the Athens area for its athletic programs and dedicated coaches, Downtown Academy emulates this support system. Students are taught four key expectations - listen, obey, work hard and never give up - while the school works to reinforce seven main character traits: zest, grit, curiosity, gratitude, optimism, self-control, and social intelligence. From there, the school has created lesson plans and a network of mentors and academic coaches that aim to overcome risk factors typically associated with poverty.

That's because one other aspect of Downtown Academy sets it apart from other schools, both public and private: Its demographics. Nearly all its students are African-American and come from households earning less than $20,000 a year.

Which means the students share unique educational traits that Ennis and others are addressing head-on. For example, many students start kindergarten with limited vocabulary skills or undiagnosed learning difficulties. When the school opened with a class each of kindergarteners and first-graders in 2013, Ennis said he recognized the need for assessments of all the students.

That's where Jenny Brown of the UGA College of Education came into the picture.

Brown, a professor and speech-language pathologist with experience in providing culturally relevant interventions, initially came to the school to provide baseline assessments of the students. But it soon became apparent that there was so much more that could be done.

"That's where this organic relationship grew. We brought (UGA) students out to do screenings," said Brown. "Knowing the strong relationship between language and reading scores, we collaborated on ways to support the oral language to written language continuum, including oral narrative instruction and reading comprehension that focused on an active-learner approach."

She said their initial testing found characteristics consistent with low socio-economic status, such as lower language and literacy skills. So from there, she and her students developed an intervention to monitor students' growth in this area.

That initial study blossomed into a school-wide "talent development" program, which sets out steps of early screenings, interventions, additional resources and services. Other College of Education professors have stepped in to address other needs, such as a school-wide behavior support plan and strategies for teaching mathematics.

"What's really neat about the partnership is, it serves multiple goals at one time," added Brown. "It meets a need for the students and the teachers, and it provides support for them. It's a very small school that might not have access to them otherwise."

There's also the added benefit of what the partnership provides UGA students.


Learning all around

Undergraduates in the College of Education's communication sciences and disorders program typically don't work in a "clinical" setting - that is, students first learn about language and speech development, risk factors, and communication disorders in preparation for a graduate program that involves working with students or clients.

But the partnership with Downtown Academy allows undergraduates the chance to work alongside specialists in a diverse school setting, gaining practical experience by interacting with children and teachers in typical school activities . It's also a place where graduate students, who are at a point where they are putting that knowledge into practice, can gain more hours of experience.

"It's giving (the school) that support, but it's also an amazing opportunity for our students. In the past couple of years , every one of our master's students has had the opportunity to come out to do a screening or evaluation, if not also participate in an instruction or intervention project," she said.

"Also, in the fall semester, we started an independent study opportunity for our undergraduates. They get to participate in the after-school program; they provide extra tutoring and support students' language and literacy skills in the after-school activities," Brown added. "They are connecting the pieces between research in the area of language development and language differences with the interactions they are having with the children - they can see that research in an applied setting."

And the research that Brown conducts at Downtown Academy benefits both the UGA students and the elementary-aged kids for whom it's designed. For example, one recent study by Brown looked at a way to teach the parts of a narrative to kindergarteners using recordings of their own retellings. By the end of the study, the students' literacy skills had jumped exponentially.

In another aspect of her research, Brown is exploring the baseline for evaluating the student's language skills using African-American English. There was a fear, she explained, that students would score abnormally low on evaluations not because they didn't have the language skills, but because the evaluation was measuring a different standard.

Overall, said Brown, the partnership is paying off at all levels.

"We're collecting longitudinal data on kids' language use, and we're getting the opportunity to work with kids and teachers," she said. "I've had several graduate students say this was one of the most helpful parts (of their coursework) - seeing the teachers who are so caring and supportive, and the research part of it."

Ennis agreed that the partnership is mutually beneficial. As the school plans to include fourth grade this fall - and expand into a second building on its campus at Broad and Pulaski Streets - Ennis said he's hopeful that the partnership will continue to translate into the academic success of his students.

"The UGA students loved working with our kids; they are getting to work with kids with real needs, and they get to see their needs are being met," he said. "Jenny has done a wonderful job of having her students work on projects that are most beneficial to our students."