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Being the Change

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UT Elementary Primes Students for Success in School and Beyond

UT Elementary Students

Just a few miles across the interstate from “the big UT,” there is a charter school filled with “Little Longhorns” dressed neatly in burnt orange polo shirts and khakis.

Every morning, they all gather together for a hot breakfast and warm hugs from their teachers and school administrators. At UT Elementary, a part of the University of Texas Charter School System located in East Austin, it’s important for students to start off on the right foot at school and in their daily lives.

Unlike any other school of its kind in Texas, UT Elementary has one enormous advantage: its partnership with a top-tier research university. It takes the best in teaching research and applies it to the classrooms—with impressive results. The goal is to help students, many of whom come from economically disadvantaged households, traverse their way from kindergarten all the way through grad school.

A Model that Works

With a focus on social and emotional learning, UT Elementary revolves its curriculum around lessons in empathy, respect, problem solving and teamwork. Erin Taylor Green, a recent College of Education graduate, says she noticed a remarkable difference in how the students learned and interacted with one another when she began student teaching in Scarlett Calvin’s fifth-grade classroom last spring.

UT Elementary students in the garden

“I was so inspired by how much these teachers care about their students, and how invested they are in helping them learn and grow,” Green says. “They truly believe that every kid has the potential to succeed.”

Disenchanted by her previous student teaching stints in the public school system, she almost gave up on the profession altogether. That is until she realized how much of an impact she could make on her students’ lives.

“Fighting for students, and encouraging them to reach their true potential should be at the center of education, and UT Elementary is doing that in a way that I’ve never seen before,” Green says. “Our students’ test score are higher, they’re reading at higher levels, they’re thinking critically – so it’s apparent that this model really works.”

At a school that feels more like a close-knit community than an institution, students feel more at ease with themselves and with others, she notes. They’re not afraid to voice their opinions and are quickly leaning how to hear out opposing viewpoints.

“When students feel like they’re in a safe, welcoming environment, they’re going to be happier and better behaved,” Green says. “They’re fully invested in what they’re learning, and I think it’s because the lessons are presented in a genuinely enthusiastic way. The teachers are passionate about their work and the kids pick up on that.”

Agents of Change

That sense of enthusiasm is palpable in Mary Ledbetter’s fifth-grade classroom, where students are absorbing their lessons through an array of hands-on activities. When they’re not out on field trips, they’re busy in the classroom reading chapter books with their resident bunny, pursuing mobile museum exhibit displays or collaborating together on group projects.

To pique their curiosity about America’s founding fathers, authors, poets and activists, Ledbetter adorns her classroom walls with images of handwritten letters, portraits, quotes and collages. These items, known in the teaching field as “primary sources,” offer a glance into the lives of some people who worked hard, pushed the status quo and achieved greatness.

UT Elementary Students

“It is inspiring for the kids to see that the people who we recognize as heroes in history are just human beings who worked really hard, took risks, failed and picked themselves up again,” says Ledbetter, who has been working in education for nearly three decades. “Every single one of my students can do the same thing, and we’re depending on them.”

Ledbetter says her students are learning how to be agents of change. To drive this message home, she often points to a quote posted on her wall by Mahatma Gandhi that states, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

“I tell them that when they see something that they feel is wrong, they should take a step forward and make something happen,” Ledbetter says. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.’ I have to remind them of that because they want to be heard, but they have to also be willing to let others speak.”

Talking it Out

Elementary student readingEven at the tender ages of seven and eight, students in Brittany Bain’s second-grade class are learning how to find their voice as they broach sensitive topics such as race relations and discrimination. While working on an African American Heroes book project last February, the children found that talking about skin color can be rather difficult in today’s society.

“When one of my students pointed to a man in a photograph and referred to him as ‘white,’ an African American student said, ‘don’t call him white; that’s not nice,'” Bain recalls. “That’s when I asked the class, ‘well then, what can we say’? Let’s talk about it and figure it out together.”

Children are perceptive and notice racial and gender discrimination in their daily lives. That’s why it’s important to address this issue and enforce the need for equal rights in this country and around the world, Bain says.

“I want them to start asking, ‘why would we treat each other differently because of skin color or class?” “It’s important for them to learn at this young age that we are all human and that we are all the same,” Bain says.

This is a valuable lesson that Natacha Jones’ first-graders are learning as well. One of the many benefits of the school, she notes, is that they all get to interact with and learn from people from various socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures.

“Some of our conversations are far and away above what we expect form six- and seven-year-olds,” Jones says. “If you give them space and listen to their voices, they have a lot to say—and there’s a lot that us grownups can learn from their perspectives.”

Primed for Success

One of Jones’ biggest joys of teaching is sitting back and watching the wheels turning as students brainstorm in groups.

“It’s very gratifying watching them grow into independent learners,” Jones says, smiling. “When I take a step back and watch them work together, that’s when the magic happens.”

When her students leave for middle school, Jones is confident they will be well equipped to handle any obstacle that comes their way.

“Every month, we highlight a specific character trait at UTES. We want our little longhorns to be tenacious, to have empathy, and to be leaders,” Jones says. “We want them to have a good strong sense of who they are and who they want to be. We strive to give them a solid academic foundation and send them to middle school with a lifelong learner mentality.”

That foundation is evident in the school’s first cohort of high school seniors who graduated last May. Come this fall, many of them will be the first in their family to attend college. Like a proud mother, Ledbetter has high expectations for her alumni.

“Our students have been very successful in middle school and high school,” says Ledbetter, who joined UT Elementary when its first graduating class entered fifth grade in 2007. “Many of them are already registered to vote, and they’re getting scholarships to universities all over the nation. It is gratifying to see them succeed”

Photos by Kirk Weddle Photography