A new Hope College course through which students will work with schools in inner-city Los Angeles is part of a developing relationship that organizers Hope will make a lasting difference on many levels.

The three-week May Term course, “Hope Comes to Watts,” will engage students with the two charter elementary and middle schools that are part of the Watts Learning Center in South Los Angeles.  Running Tuesday, May 7, through Friday, May 24, the course is designed to immerse the students in living the challenges, needs and rewards that are part of working with children in a culturally diverse urban setting.

“This is an incredible and unique experience for our students,” said John Yelding, who is the Susan M. and Glenn G. Cherup Professor of Education and one of three Hope faculty developing the program.  “It’s clearly inner-city, it’s highly diverse, and it will expose them to cultural experiences that most of them have never had before.”

“It’s something that we think our students can build on the rest of their lives,” said Yelding, who has been developing the course with Hope education colleagues Nancy Cook and Madeline Kukla.  “It could be something that really influences their sense of career choices and sense of calling, whether they’re students that are in education or not.”

A total of 11 Hope students will be participating in the May Term during its inaugural year.  The mix includes not only students who are seeking to become teachers, but also students interested in social work, psychology and communication.  Their activities will reflect their range of interests, from assisting teachers in classroom placements, to working with a school social worker, to shadowing a principal, to assisting the Watts Learning Center with its web site and developing a video.  All of the Hope students will also work with the children through after-school programs at the two schools.

While the focus of the May Term is on providing a meaningful learning experience for students, Yelding noted that it has developed as part of a larger vision for how both the Watts Learning Center and Hope can benefit from working together.

“We see it eventually as a relationship that doesn’t just exist for three weeks in May but is ongoing,” he said.

Longer-term, for example, Yelding envisions the elementary and middle schools potentially serving as an option for semester-long student-teaching experiences, and perhaps even for teaching positions.  “We have students who are very interested in teaching in high-needs areas,” he said.

He also noted that the Watts Learning Center has long been interested in developing a partnership with a college or university with an education program whose faculty could in turn serve as a resource.  For example, he said, “It gives them someone to turn to as they have questions and as they consider decisions about curriculum, procedures and policies.”

At the same time, Yelding said, he and his colleagues—like the college’s students—are approaching the experience and future as learners who want to help.

“We do not go in there with the attitude that we’re the experts by any means,” he said.  “We do go in with the desire to help in any way that they invite.”

The Watts Learning Center, which emphasizes preparing students for college, opened in 1997 as K-5 elementary school and was one of the first three independent charter schools approved in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  It expanded in 2009 to include a middle school, which now serves grades six-eight, at a separate campus.  Today the two schools enroll a combined total of approximately 625 students.

“It’s a successful school,” Yelding said.  “The elementary school took students who were scoring in the bottom 10 percent of the California state test and they now score consistently at or above the state average in every area.”

“The middle school started with students with similar challenges, added one grade a year, and has just moved into a new building,” he said.  “The middle school’s enrollment jumped from 140 to 350 this year, and they have a wait list to get in.”

Yelding noted that the two schools are about five minutes apart.  He said that more than 90 percent of the students enrolled in the elementary school are African-American, with most students commuting from elsewhere in the community.  At the middle school, he said, more than 50 percent of the students are Latino, and most live within walking distance.

The Watts Learning Center was founded by Gene and Sandra Fisher, both of whom continue to be actively involved in the institution.  Gene Fisher, who is president of the Watts Learning Center Board of Directors, is an environmental scientist who has held positions addressing environmental and health needs in the U.S. and Africa.  Sandra Fisher, who is executive director of the Watts Learning Center, has also served as a teacher and principal with the Los Angeles Public Schools.

The partnership between Hope’s department of education and the Watts Learning Center has been developing since 2011.  Cook, who is professor of education and director of student teaching, and Kukla, who is director of national accreditation and special programs for the department, paid an initial visit to the center’s two schools that summer, with Kukla and Yelding visiting in the summer of 2012, and Cook and Yelding returning in February of this year to finalize details for the May Term.  Gene and Sandra Fisher visited Hope in January 2012 and discussed the Watts Learning Center through a campus address, “An Exciting Educational Partnership: Embracing the Challenge of Disbelief,” presented through the college’s annual Darell and Mary Schregardus Diversity Lecture Series.

Hope’s department of education prepares teacher candidates to teach in elementary and secondary schools. Each year, the department annually recommends approximately 150 graduates to the State of Michigan for teacher certification.  The department currently has 12 full-time faculty.

The program is nationally accredited through the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC).  In 2012, the program was one of only two in the state to earn a 70, the highest score possible, on the newly released 2010-11 Michigan Department of Education Teacher Preparation Institution Performance Scores.  Hope has consistently ranked as one of the state’s top programs, receiving an “Exemplary” rating, in the annual listing since the report’s inception in 2005.

The teacher-education program at Hope provides prospective teachers with a blend of classroom instruction and field experience. Teacher candidates participate in field placements beginning with their first course in the program, Educational Psychology.  This model continues through the teacher candidates culminating semester of student teaching. The student-teaching placements are available not only locally but also through off-campus programs including in Chicago, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  An on-going relationship with Interaction International has also provided student-teaching opportunities in nations including India, Kenya and Thailand.  Teacher candidates also have the chance to gain additional experience through activities by volunteering with local organizations that work with children, such as the Children’s After School Achievement (CASA) and TRIO Upward Bound programs based at Hope.