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FEATURED ARTICLE

Shaping the Young Leaders of Tomorrow: The Story of
South Carolina Service-Learning Literacy Champions

BY JASON M. BIRD, with DR. BRADLEY H. SMITH

birdJason M. Bird currently attends the University of South Carolina at Columbia in the School Psychology Doctoral Program.  During his junior and senior years at USC, Jason worked with Dr. Smith in the Challenging Horizons After-School Program serving youth in local primary and middle schools.  He is the primary author and creator of the Writing and Reading Achievement Program (WRAP) designed to promote the enjoyment of reading and writing activities as well as to encourage students to become lifelong learners.  His research interests include students’ attitudes towards learning, resiliency to risk factors, moral development, self-regulatory efficacy, volunteerism and the benefits of social exchange within the community.

Dr. Brad Smith joined the faculty at the University of South Carolina in 1998.  He started the Challenging Horizons after-school Program (CHP) as a service-learning opportunity for USC students in 2001.  Since then, the CHP has grown from one class for a dozen students serving roughly a dozen middle school students, to over 200 USC students serving a total of over 400 students in 4 public schools.  Dr. Smith’s research interests are focused primarily on evaluating and disseminating the CHP, with other research complimenting the CHP in the areas of delinquency and substance use prevention, health promotion, and positive parenting programs.

“Reading is the foundation for success in school and life, the WRAP program is a student-initiated and designed service-learning program at the University of South Carolina that provided direct instruction and motivational support to elementary and middle school students who need to improve their reading and writing skills.”

Quoted from the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee official press release announcing the 2009 SC Literacy Champions Award to Jason Bird and the WRAP program.

As an undergraduate student, I entered my first leadership role in service-learning with a slight nervous shake running through my hands.  I couldn’t help but feel, for a moment, overwhelmed by 35 sixth graders staring back at me. Their curiosity and excitement to have college students come visit their classroom and work with them on new approaches to reading and writing shined brightly through their eyes. The positive energy and liveliness from the students helped calm my nerves and encouraged my resolve. I now wanted more than anything to help these students become more accomplished writers.

After introducing ourselves to one another, I walked to the front of the classroom and wrote a single question on the chalkboard, “What is the biggest life goal you have for the next five years?”  The children sat quietly in their seats churning the question over in their minds.  After the brief moment of silence, one girl in the class bravely raised her hand to ask, “Mr. Bird, what do you mean by a life goal?”  From our brief conversational exchange, a valuable discussion on goals had begun.   At that moment, I was hooked and felt destined to make a difference in the lives of these young children.

This first-time leadership experience brought to my attention the imperative need to help children struggling in the classroom not only with basic reading and writing skills, but also with their personal goals and ambitions.  How could I assist these children in shaping a successful future for themselves?  I knew I had my work cut out for me but the journey would be well worth the reward.  My Mission: To provide children and adolescents with the necessary tools to reach their highest potential academically and professionally.  This submission to the Community Works Journal describes the development of the Writing and Reading Achievement Program (WRAP), which focuses mainly on literacy, self-management skills and professional development.

bird2Within the classrooms, through the hallways, and down the walkways at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, future leaders in education, psychology and community service-learning are emerging to the forefront and reaching new heights of discovery in educational research. In 2008, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recognized the University of South Carolina (USC) as a leader among institutions of higher education in terms of providing curricular engagement, outreach, and partnerships with the community.  The service-learning program that engaged me in developing WRAP is the Challenging Horizons Program (CHP) under the direction of Dr. Brad Smith.  For the past ten years, the CHP has offered undergraduate students semester after semester a valuable “hands-on” practicum through interactive experience as a counselor, mentor or teacher in an after-school setting.  Dr. Brad Smith has continually encouraged the establishment of community-based service learning projects conducted by graduate and undergraduate students alike.  In addition to the research published by Dr. Smith and his students (www.scstudentexcellence.org), this year the CHP received recognition at the State and National level due, in large extent, to the development of the WRAP program.

My friend, Tyler Greer, and I pilot tested WRAP with a dozen students and found that the initial enthusiasm for WRAP was persistent with the addition of a leadership component.  The experience proved that middle school students would actually volunteer to stay after-school and work on their personal writings and professional development.  Dr. Smith encouraged us to study the effects of WRAP on the middle school students’ literacy and self-management skills, including reading, writing, goal setting, and personal efficacy.  Tyler and I wrote a collaborative research proposal in order to expand and study WRAP further.  The grant application resulted in a Magellan Scholar Award from the Office of Undergraduate Research at the University of South Carolina.  The $6,000 in grant funding paid for reading materials, writing supplies, professional development tools and incentives for approximately 90 children at two local middle schools.

Throughout the Spring 2009 semester, we expanded the after-school program to three groups and started WRAP in two English/Language Arts classrooms at another local middle school.  At both schools, students participated in guided reading and writing exercises with college mentors from USC.  However, in the program held during the school day, USC students worked as trained mentors side-by-side with middle school teachers.  Service-learning students enrolled in a three-hour course provided WRAP with trained instructors that could provide individualized sessions 12 hours a week to adolescents in need of increased instruction and practice.  Thanks to the teachers, we learned a lot more about how to help students with their writing and professional development.  This mutually rewarding relationship made WRAP what it has become today.

The initial buzz and responses from the surrounding community and schools inspired me to step up my game even further.  My insight was that proficiency in writing was necessary for success in school, the workplace, and personal lives.  Furthermore, writing could become a vehicle through which children had the ability to express themselves without limitation.  Unfortunately, adequate attention from teachers and individual goal counseling was often limited or completely absent for many elementary and middle school students in South Carolina.  Overworked and underpaid teachers simply did not have enough time to provide the remedial editing, revision, and feedback necessary to improve writing and leadership skills.  Also, students needed help learning the importance of writing and its impact on future life ambitions.  As a direct effect, I began to add supplementary curriculum engaging elementary through high school aged students in reflective writing exercises and group discussions pertaining to character strengths and values of leaders and professionals in the world around them.  To further my pursuit, I started recruiting local newspaper editors, lawyers, and other businessmen and women to come share their real life experiences and offer these young people the opportunity to learn from professionals in the community.  I wanted, more than anything, for my students to feel empowered with information and be ready to enter the college and career worlds without hesitation.

In the summer of 2009, I applied for the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee (EOC) “Literacy Champions Award,” which recognizes excellence in service-learning designed to promote advance practices in literacy instruction.  The Writing and Reading Achievement Program (WRAP) was selected as the sole recipient of the first ever South Carolina Literacy Champions Award.  In January 2010, we were invited to speak at the EOC’s monthly assembly of members inside the South Carolina’s legislative chambers.  The committee included legislators from the State Senate and House of Representatives, education leaders, and members of the business community interested in promoting education.  Tyler had moved away to attend Auburn University for graduate school, so Dr. Smith went with me to accept the award and tell the EOC about WRAP.  Speaking in front of the middle school students seemed effortless compared to the EOC meeting, especially when having to answer spontaneously asked questions from the legislators, educators, and business leaders on the governmental committee.  Evidently the conversation went well for shortly after they presented us with a check for $10,000.

Now in the fall of 2010, I am beginning my second year as a graduate student in the School Psychology Doctoral Program at the University of South Carolina.  The funding from the Literacy Champions Award has allowed me to continue my personal research on WRAP, which will eventually be the primary focus of my master’s thesis and dissertation.  Perhaps more importantly, I am now in the position to mentor young children and adolescents as they acquire their own ideas about leadership and the professional world.  Reciprocally, college students can grow and learn from these service-learning experiences and acquire an enhanced sense of community and altruism. Through interactive practicum courses, undergraduates have the opportunity to use their free time constructively while building relationships with local school administration, students, and parents.  Input from these relationships inspires innovation and community-based research that can then extend academic resources for primary and secondary school students.  As future educators and teachers in training, undergraduate and graduate students can offer positive academic support systems to today’s children and adolescents through the shared distribution of new and fresh ideas among peers and colleagues.  Let us stand up and fight now, for a new age and generation of leaders are upon the horizon.

Geoffrey Canada, President of the Harlem Children Zone, said it best in a poem he wrote, “When you love all the children, there’s nothing to do.  But start a small army of Love, Me and You.” 

The first photo illustrates two of the leaders in the CHP, Liz Visbal and Tina Williams, at the “Lights on Afterschool” celebration when the After-School Alliance presented us with MetLife After-School Innovators Award.

The second photo is of myself (the guy with the beard) with members of the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, when they awarded WRAP with the 2009 SC Literacy Champions Award.



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