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UNF fosters innovative school/business collaboration


Thrilled with choices, kindergartner Takaria Scott happily thumbed through stacks of popular children’s books before settling on Dora the Explorer during a recent Main Street America Groupsupported summer reading book drive at Woodland Acres Elementary School.

Scott is one of many Northeast Florida children who receives academic support through a unique university/school/business relationship spearheaded by the University of North Florida. The underpinning for the collaboration is the Urban Professional Development School (UPDS) initiative, designed to produce positive educational outcomes at urban schools in Duval County. From one-on-one tutoring to school-based research, the initiative has strengthened the ties between UNF, First Coast students and one local company.

The Main Street America Group, a super-regional property/casualty insurance carrier, began its relationship with UNF and Duval County schools in the early 2000s while establishing its corporate headquarters in Jacksonville. In 2008, the company approached UNF about “adopting” an elementary school. UNF’s College of Education and Human Services suggested pairing the company with one of Jacksonville’s Urban Professional Development Schools and Main Street America employees began tutoring at Woodland Acres in 2009.

Tom Van Berkel, chairman and CEO of Main Street America, said he’s proud of the multi-faceted collaboration between UNF, Woodland Acres and the company.

“Everything blossomed when we formed our relationship with Woodland Acres,” he said. “This was a great fit for us and the school because there was clearly a need for more on-the-ground support at Woodland Acres.”

Van Berkel added, “Based on the significant academic improvements Woodland Acres has experienced since we formed our relationship with them, we feel our joint efforts have been highly successful. It is a win-win for everyone involved.”

Jacksonville’s UPDS initiative has received two national awards. Although the roots of today’s model go back more than two decades, it was permanently funded in 1997 and is now a formal partnership between UNF’s College of Education and Human Services and Duval County Public Schools. Each year, about 1,100 UNF pre-service teachers complete a diverse series of hands-on, field-based experiences at one of four UPDS sites: Kings Trail Elementary, Lake Shore Middle, West Jacksonville Elementary and Woodland Acres Elementary. The Professional Development School concept is based on the medical model of teaching hospitals. In these distinctive schools, essential learning and research activities take place at the school site rather than in a university classroom.

UNF faculty and students are able to work, study, conduct research and implement best practices alongside current teachers and school leaders. UNF faculty play a key role at each of these sites. At least one faculty member serves as professor-in-residence at each school. While in residence, they work with children, mentor university students and practicing teachers, and interact with all stakeholders to implement best practices. Professors-in-residence also conduct site-based research aimed at increasing the knowledge base for educational practitioners and policy makers. Other faculty members may teach classes at the UPDS site, allowing UNF students to immediately put what they learn into practice. This dynamic, community-focused partnership is popular with students at every level.

Dr. Larry Daniel, dean of the College of Education and Human Services, said that the UPDS partnership is a practical way to give future teachers the opportunity to gain first-hand experience inside an urban school.

“Everything our students are learning in this setting has immediate application,” Daniel said. “We’re committed to preparing teachers to be highly effective in the classroom and this environment gives everyone the opportunity to learn from each other. This model has shown that everyone is a learner once they step into the classroom.”

Christie Stevenson, who received her master’s degree from UNF, serves as Woodland Acres’ resident-clinical-faculty member. Her position is jointly funded by UNF and the Duval County Public Schools. She said the UNF partnership is as close to a model relationship as possible, with UNF pre-service teachers involved in and contributing to the school at nearly every academic level. They start early in their degree program, with freshmen going on site visits for classroom observation. Intermediate-level university students visit the school regularly to learn about different teaching strategies and to see them implemented in a classroom setting.

At the most advanced level, UNF interns act as tutors and teachers-in-training, working side-by-side with experienced teachers and the resident-clinical-faculty to hone their skills.

“One of our goals is to prepare UNF students to be effective teachers in urban schools. A companion goal is to develop our students into teachers who want to teach there,” Stevenson said. “We have been very successful in meeting both goals, as evidenced by the large percentage of interns Woodland Acres hires each year, the number that become full-time teachers there after receiving their degree and the percentage of those that eventually mentor UNF students themselves.”

A quick look at employment statistics at Woodland Acres makes it clear the initiative is successful from a UNF perspective. Nearly half of the teachers at Woodland Acres are former UNF students who interned there or at another UPDS. Daniel said he views those hiring statistics as validation that Jacksonville’s UPDS model produces quality educators who are committed to teaching in urban settings. As an added bonus, teacher retention rates are much higher than average for those who have come through a UPDS. At Woodland Acres, another positive impact has been improved reading scores for previously struggling children. In 2013, a group of 24 UNF students tutored 52 first graders. The result was an exponential increase in the children’s reading comprehension skills.

“Only 28 percent of those elementary schoolers were able to read at a proficient level at the beginning of the school year,” said Dr. Susan Syverud, UNF professor-in-residence at Woodland Acres. That number jumped to 77 percent by the end of the year, illustrating the benefits of the face-to-face tutoring sessions. “Teaching is a highly applied profession that requires practice and dedication,” Daniel said. “The fact that the UPDS model goes one step further and provides hands-on learning in an urban environment makes it even more beneficial for our pre service teachers.”

Main Street America’s contributions at Woodland Acres go far deeper than monetary support, and First Coast students are the primary beneficiaries. The company’s role has evolved into a year-round support structure that includes tutoring sessions where about 20 of the company’s employees tutor elementary students on a monthly basis throughout the school year. Additionally, the company sponsors a yearly field trip to its corporate headquarters for Woodland Acres fifth graders. More than 70 students attended this year’s trip, where they learned the basics of the property/casualty insurance industry and got an inside glimpse of corporate America. The company also collected more than 400 books for the annual book drive and sponsors a back-to-school supply drive each year. Last winter, they spearheaded funding to launch a new community outreach program to help Woodland Acres parents get more involved in their child’s education.

Woodland Acres Principal Timothy Feagins said Main Street America’s relationship is much more than a simple business/ school relationship. Their monthly tutoring program has given Woodland Acres students a dedicated set of community advocates who are interested in the children’s well-being and academic success.

“Main Street America’s contributions have become a big part of our school year,” Feagins said. “Our third- and fourth-grade students now look forward to the field trip they will get to make to Main Street America when they become fifth graders. Our kindergartners, first graders and second graders look forward to receiving books from the Main Street America Book Drive. This collaboration is truly invaluable.”

In addition to their impact at Woodland Acres, Main Street America has been a dedicated donor to UNF, as illustrated by the $50,000 gift made in 2007 to the Coggin College of Business. This gift established The Main Street America Group Career Management Endowment which helps employers identify and recruit UNF students. Recently, the company also established a new scholarship program for UNF students who wish to teach in urban schools after graduation.

“A well-educated regional workforce is critical to the success of The Main Street America Group and other Northeast Florida companies,” said Toni Porterfield, Main Street America’s senior vice president/head of human resources.

Seventy-five percent of Main Street America’s hires in Jacksonville over the past three years have been locally based candidates.

“This new scholarship program will be another important catalyst to establishing a stronger local workforce,” Porterfield added.


Click here to watch Woodland Acres Elementary School's visit to Main Street America