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Release: Immediate

UI education professor, elementary school receive $600,000 grant to create 'community'

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A University of Iowa assistant professor of education and an Iowa City elementary school will spend the next four years exploring ways to use the school's cultural, socio-economic and intellectual diversity to get parents and students more involved in the life of the school, thanks to a $622,000 grant from the state of Iowa.

Kathryn Whitmore, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, will use the grant from the Iowa Department of Education to continue an innovative program at Horace Mann Elementary School designed to create a sense of community in the school and to strengthen ties between the school and nearby neighborhoods.

The new grant, which provides for $155,729 a year, begins July 1 and is geared toward students in kindergarten through third grade. It continues a project Whitmore began at Horace Mann in 1994.

The grant is co-directed by Stephanie Heitman, co-principal at Horace Mann.

"Our objective is to create a community school that will challenge kids with highly intellectual learning experiences," Whitmore says. "To achieve that, we want to recognize and use our diversity as a resource to create developmentally appropriate, meaningful, multicultural learning experiences for young children and build strong bridges between our students' homes and the school."

The new project, which will cut in half the student-teacher ratio in K-3 classrooms at Mann, emphasizes two main features:

-- Increase and improve community initiatives designed to bolster the relationship between the school and its surrounding community.

Examples include hiring a liaison to coordinate partnerships between the school and community and education groups; creating study groups involving parents, teachers and students; teaching UI education classes at the school; and creating a partnership between the College of Education and the school to share educational resources.

-- Create and expand efforts to make Horace Mann a family-centered school, where parents, students and teachers are involved in improving education.

Examples include hiring a liaison to help parents meet each other and get to know the staff of the school; establishing a weekly family night for parents and students to visit the school; creating a mentoring program to match parents of current students with new parents to offer advice and to introduce parents to the school; creating a Family Resource Center at the school.

The project will also continue an innovative study group concept known as "Parent-Kid-Teacher Investigators" (PKTI). The group, introduced to the school by Whitmore, includes parents, students, teachers and UI researchers who meet regularly to study issues of concern to children and families.

Results of PKTI teams are currently in use at the school.

Whitmore says researchers have long known that increasing family involvement in schools helps improve education for students, but traditional approaches are often not enough.

"We want to get parents into the school for a variety of reasons, and we want them to feel comfortable being there," Whitmore says. "The traditional way to do that was through parent-teacher conferences, or maybe through parent-teacher organizations. We want to involve parents in a more dynamic way, letting them see that their experiences and their input are valued by the school and will help their children learn better."

The new project also emphasizes that the diversity of the student population is a resource that the school can draw on to broaden the curriculum, Whitmore says. For example, parents of particular ethnic origins can serve as guest speakers or can advise teachers on ways to improve lesson plans to better portray other cultures and to avoid stereotypes.

"We often don't think of the diversity of our schools and community as different funds of knowledge that can be drawn upon to enrich, expand and improve learning," Whitmore says.

Currently, the student-teacher ratio in K-3 classes at Horace Mann is about 1-to-20. With the grant, and the 4.5 new staff positions it provides, the ratio drops to about 1-to-10 or 1-to-15.