Experiential Capstone is Helping Schoolchildren Succeed

April 1, 2024

EWU students are supporting elementary aged children by helping them advance their reading and comprehension skills as part of an experiential capstone for education majors.

Now in its sixth year, the capstone program is coordinated by EWU’s Ashley Lepisi, a senior lecturer. Over the past several years the program, offered during the fall and winter quarters, has helped boost the literacy skills of more than 400 students attending Grant and Adams elementary schools, including some schoolchildren with disabilities and delays.

Baylie Gibson works with Rachel, a 4th grader who loves to read. Rachel is the only student at the clinic who is well above her grade level for reading.
Baylie Gibson works with Rahel, a 4th grader who loves to read. Rahel, who hopes to someday become a doctor, is the only student at the clinic who is well above her grade level for reading.

Most recently, 22 EWU students, all seniors readying for their full time student teaching placements, spent Wednesday afternoons at southeast Spokane’s Grant Elementary, where more than 90 percent of the school’s 320 students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. During winter quarter, Eagle students’ have helped 68 schoolchildren in grades 2-5.

The program is a win-win, says EWU alumnus George Gessler, Grant Elementary School’s principal assistant.

EWU’s soon-to-be teachers learn to understand some of the challenges in the lives of a diverse population of students, says Gessler ’88, ’89, ’20. Grant’s schoolchildren, meanwhile, some of whom have experienced poverty and trauma, benefit tremendously from the individual instruction in literacy and social and emotional skills.

“They get to have people work with them, young people that are really enthralled with them,” Gessler says. “They get one positive experience a week after school, and we get better readers in return. So that’s been huge for us.”

The results speak for themselves Lepisi explains. About ninety percent of participating schoolchildren demonstrate a measurable improvement in literacy skills by the end of the quarter.

Madison Kem talks with a group of students as they walk to the front door after the last learning clinic of the quarter.

For their part, Lepisi says, EWU’s future teachers learn what it’s like to teach in schools classified as Title 1, Part A, a federal category that directs extra services to schools where a majority of students come from disadvantaged households. The experience, she says, sometimes changes the trajectory of their teaching careers.

“We’ve had a lot of students say, ‘I didn’t think that I had the capacity to serve in a Title 1 building,’” says Lepisi. “Many of them leave saying: ‘This actually seems a little bit more fulfilling to me – and actually I’d rather be in a Title 1 building now.’”

After 8 weeks working with Grant’s schoolchildren one-on-one and in small groups, EWU students gained expertise in creating learning activities that feel like play — yet get results.

“The most rewarding thing is when a kid finally gets the ‘Aha!’ moment when you are teaching them. They are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I get it!’ and then they explain it to you and are so excited,” says Madison Kem, a 23-year-old senior from Renton.

Kem, a five-time All Big Sky Conference midfielder on EWU women’s soccer team, says there’s a perceived stigma about teaching at Title 1 schools. In reality, she says, they are all “just children who are ready to learn.”

Collaborating with other teachers on strategies to improve reading and comprehension is preparing her for the future, Kem adds. “This is so helpful as a teacher because you are learning every day.”

Jillian Headley, a 21-year-old senior from Spokane, spent the quarter working with a first grader who thrived with personalized instruction specifically tailored to his interests and abilities.

Jillian Headly gets some smiles from Finn, a first grader who is making good progress learning about vowels.
Jillian Headly gets some smiles from Finn, a first grader who is making good progress learning about vowels. Headly is among the students helped by EWU’s generous scholarship supporters.

“It is great because all your hard work you’ve put in for the quarter is paying off in seeing the student grow and succeed,” says Headley, who receives a scholarship to help with her studies.

Initially, Gracie Bush, 21, also a senior from Spokane, planned to teach in the upper grades. After having a positive experience working with students in the fourth and fifth grades, she’s totally up for teaching younger children. “Once I graduate, I’m just kind of keeping my options open at any grade level,” Bush says.

Brooke Young, 21, was surprised to see a familiar face while helping with the reading clinic. EWU alumnus George Gessler, Young’s own 4th grade teacher, is now principal assistant at Grant Elementary. Of the reunion, Gessler says, “If you are really lucky, you can see one of your former students become a teacher. That’s when it truly comes full circle.”

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