Pen pal project unites graduate, middle school students

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has joined with the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies and Peabody College to create a platform to provide detailed, reliable and recurring information about the commitment of major employers to the public school system. This is the latest installment in a series that tells the story of collaborative involvement between members of the Vanderbilt community and local public schools.

Graduate School students and their pen pals from Wright Middle School convened on campus April 16 for a day of interaction and mentoring. (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

More than 100 sixth graders from Wright Middle School, one of the most economically and geographically diverse schools in Metro Nashville, met the Vanderbilt Graduate School student pen pals with whom they have corresponded for the entire school year and were treated to a tour of Vanderbilt University Medical Center facilities on April 16.

The project was the brainchild of Omozusi “Zusi” Andrews, a Ph.D. candidate in biological sciences, and E. Margarita Prieto-Ballengee, who received her Ph.D. in engineering last May. As the pair walked together in 2012 during the Graduate School Council’s Hike for the Homeless, they hatched the idea of bringing GSC members together with young local students to encourage them to pursue higher education goals while honing the skills needed to get there.

The sixth graders were accompanied to campus by their science teacher, Rachel King, who in 2012 received her M.Ed. from the Teaching and Learning in Urban Schools program, a partnership between Metro Nashville Public Schools and Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

While at Peabody, King got to know Jeannie Tuschl, program coordinator for the Scientist in the Classroom Partnership Program in the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach. It was Tuschl who connected King with Andrews, Prieto and other GSC members. Tuschl worked with GSC members to help establish guidelines for the letter-writing project.

A pilot was launched last year with a smaller group of 45 middle school students. This academic year, the pen pal project more than doubled in size to 110 students, culminating in the campus tour, along with lunch and activities between pen pals.

The pen pal partnership gives Wright Middle School sixth graders the opportunity to build a relationship with someone who is older and in college. (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

“Some of these students never have the opportunity to physically write and read letters to hone their communication skills,” Tuschl said. Even more important is the opportunity to build a relationship with someone who is older and in college. The Graduate School student mentors “are able to encourage these sixth graders to find their dreams, hopes and wishes.”

Andrews, who plans to defend her dissertation in June, was overwhelmed by the responsiveness of her fellow Graduate School students. “Some would make handwritten cards with drawings. They would sometimes include little trinkets like Pokemon cards. The pen pals developed nicknames for each other. It touches my heart. As a grad student, you’re so overburdened with work, and to have an outlet like this …” she trailed off while watching students unite with their pen pals for the first time. “It uplifts me to know something’s bigger than yourself.”

Also accompanying the students was Meredith Toth, a consulting teacher for Wright Middle School who focuses on content literacy in the science and social studies classrooms as well as project-based learning. “It’s been excellent for these kids to have a real writing audience. They write differently when they’re writing for real people.”

The diverse membership of GSC was an important factor for a school with children representing 26 countries, Toth said. Wright has a large immigrant population, with Mexican and Kurdish immigrants among the most represented. “It’s important for them to see that people like them are working at high levels at Vanderbilt and they, too, can do that. Coming here is a big treat and something they don’t get to do often,” she said.

During the tour, the Wright students had the opportunity to hear presentations about numerous educational opportunities on campus, to learn about Vanderbilt LifeFlight, tour the Eskind Biomedical Library and visit a lab for a demonstration by Vanderbilt Student Volunteers for Science, a service organization committed to bringing hands-on science lessons to middle school students.

An upcoming project has about 50 Graduate School students engaged in helping Wright students improve and finalize quality science fair entries, with them returning to judge the science fair in May.

On the day of the tours, Andrews was hard at work on her dissertation and just one week away from attending a scientific conference in Switzerland. “So many things are happening,” she said, “but this is so important to me.”

NBC’s Brian Williams to anchor Hillwood commencement

Hillwood High School’s Class of 2014 launched a months-long campaign to make NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams their graduation speaker after hearing his charge in a previous commencement speech to discard excuses and work hard. Their persistence was rewarded. He accepted the invitation and will address the graduating class on May 22.

“Mr. Williams, we heard you. Now hear us making a change. A change in attitude about our community and the entitlement mentality,” they wrote. Students at the West Nashville high school also created, taped and edited a video invitation using skills acquired in Hillwood’s Academy of Art, Design and Communications, one of the school’s three career academies and part of Metro Nashville Schools’ Academies of Nashville program. Offered in all of Nashville’s zoned high schools and in the district’s Virtual School, the academies differ from traditional academic and vocational education because they prepare high school students for both college and career.

Community partners, including Vanderbilt, support the academies to ensure the curriculum remains relevant and to give teachers and students access to professionals in their fields as well as job shadowing and internship opportunities. Research shows students in career academies perform better in high school and are more likely to continue into higher education than similar students in the same schools. All of Hillwood’s academies are certified at the highest level by the National Career Academy Coalition.