What does it take to transform a neighborhood? Who can make it change — and how? You could ask a professor with a Ph.D. in sociology. Or, you could ask an 11-year-old at McCarver Elementary School.
The answer found in Tacoma, through an unusual collaboration of elementary and college students, teachers and professors who are engaged in Metro Parks Tacoma's Zina Linnik Project, is that you ask them both. And you ask, and engage, as many of those who are a part of the community as you can.
For the past two years, college students from University of Puget Sound and University of Washington Tacoma have been meeting regularly with students and teachers from McCarver Elementary School in a series of educational exchanges of a sort rarely seen in this city before.
Initially, following the tragic death of 12-year-old Zina Linnik, the intent of both universities was simply to show solidarity and work with McCarver students on their plans for a $3.5 million parks renovation campaign in honor of Linnik.
But soon both the professors and schoolteachers discovered a surprising creative value in bringing older and younger students into the same classroom to help each other learn.
The fourth and fifth grade children needed to learn literacy, independent thinking, and citizenship; the college students, who were studying teaching, anthropology, and urban studies, needed to learn about education and community development.
Before long, students age 10 to 24 were working together: studying brine shrimp, making bark rubbings, creating "stone soup" recipes for friendship, and writing civics papers, as well as writing speeches, designing brochures and planning park activities and community celebrations for the Zina Linnik Project.
"I have a textbook for this class," said one urban studies student at University of Washington Tacoma. "However, I can safely say that everything worth learning this quarter was taught by these McCarver students. I learned that elementary students are intellectuals too . I learned about how the actions of adults can impact the life decisions of the young people around them."
For students and professors, the collaboration shows the power of integrating theory and practice. At both universities, college students who want to be educators, sociologists, urban planners and civic leaders discovered that their skills for their future careers were blossoming as they talked and worked with the children.
"I realized that, especially at the elementary age, it is okay, maybe even essential, to allow the students to guide the learning that takes place in the classroom," said a student teacher-in-training at Puget Sound's School of Education.
Meanwhile, the McCarver students, who suddenly found adults listening to them and valuing their ideas, grew in self-esteem. According to a revealing research report by Puget Sound Associate Professor Monica DeHart and two of her comparative sociology seniors, McCarver teachers reported that as their students worked alongside adults, their writing improved, their vocabulary grew, and their motivation rose.
The Zina Linnik Project, guided by Metro Parks Tacoma and the Greater Metro Parks Foundation, put the young students in a partnership role with adults in the design, building and care for two parks that would be a part of their daily lives for years to come. It was a lesson unlike any other.
Each year McCarver students also visited the UW Tacoma and Puget Sound campuses, talking to admission officers, touring the grounds, meeting club presidents and working in class with their new college-age education partners.
Many of the McCarver school graduates now talk readily about going to college and many have shifted their goals from celebrity professions — basketball player or fashion designer — to careers such as doctor, lawyer, or Tacoma mayor, according to the DeHart report. "What is more, through their collaboration with college students, they have a better idea of how to get there," says DeHart.
At the two universities, several professors gave credit for participation in the McCarver collaboration and for the resulting papers. They noted clear benefits for their students.
"I previously taught this course from the book," said Linda Ishem, assistant professor in urban studies at UW Tacoma. "But after working with the schoolchildren, the way my students used the concepts in their papers and talked about them was so much richer."
"It's easy for teachers in training to underestimate how skilled young learners are," said Amy Ryken, professor of education at Puget Sound. "This way they get to see how much children bring to the learning process."
As a result of the energy created by the Zina Linnik Project, a broad array of local actors interested in education and community development have been meeting at a monthly "Education Partnership" to share ideas on innovative collaborations and ways of working in our schools. Participants have come from McCarver Elementary School, University of Washington Tacoma, University of Puget Sound, Greater Metro Parks Foundation, Tacoma Public Schools, Tacoma Housing Authority, Tacoma Public Library, and the Puyallup Nation.
Lisa Hoffman, UW Tacoma associate professor of urban studies, says the experience has been transformative for everyone involved.
"From the educators' point of view, it gives us the opportunity to bring these groups of students together to make real change in the city, while meeting both the school's and university's educational goals."
From the McCarver schoolchildren's point of view, the partnerships provide one more opportunity to create a safe, beautiful and engaging world where they can play in peace.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communciations, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org