By Colleen Kiphart
Bobcat cubs take over an Arizona elementary school.
Pamela Whitaker's 21st Century Skills/Technology classroom at Prince Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., is no longer called the "computer lab." It is now referred to as the OHIO Bobcats Technology/21st Century Skills Lab. And she is no longer Ms. Whitaker, but Ms. Bobcat. The desktops and screensavers on all of her computers are green and white. Bobcats decorate the walls and the sound of Ohio University' fight song, "Stand Up and Cheer," often echoes down the hallways.
It is all part of the elementary school's participation in the "No Excuses University Network," a program that aims to instill an expectation to attend college in young students. First implemented for the 2009-10 school year, the program allows every kindergarten through fifth-grade classroom to choose a college or university to root for and to research.
She chose Ohio University for several reasons, "My parents, Jack and Nancy Debolt, are 1963 graduates from Ohio University," Whitaker says "I visited the campus in junior high and always wished I could attend OU. And, I felt that having the Scripps College of Communication would make Ohio University an excellent choice, because one of the areas of focus in the skills lab is global communication."
In early September, Whitaker wrote to several Ohio University offices hoping to strike up an e-mail correspondence for her students and, perhaps, a few souvenirs for her to decorate the classroom. Whitaker says the results have been overwhelming. "I have received everything from brochures, maps, and school newspapers, to towels, tapestry blankets, banners and t-shirts," she says. "We even have a small, stuffed Rufus from the Office of the President at the front of the classroom."
Whitaker says Ohio University has been one of the most active schools participating in this project.
The students did not just get mementos; they also got a pen pal in Eddith Dashiell, assistant dean of undergraduate programs and services at the Scripps College of Communication. Her e-mails are read to Whitaker's classes, and the exchange has delighted both the children and adults.
"This is just plain fun for me," Dashiell says, "I sent them an e-mail and a box of souvenirs and I was thrilled when they wrote me back."
The letters have proved to be an empowering educational tool. Students from Leigh Kechley's second grade class say, "We have learned how to communicate with typing, computers, the Internet and e-mail. It makes us feel cool and excited to be able to do that!"
Whitaker says, "Many of the students didn't know where Ohio was, or had heard of Ohio University before. They're very excited about it now. They talk about going there one day."
And that is one of the most important developments that Whitaker and her colleagues have seen since the start of the "No Excuses" program. She said teachers now hear students discussing colleges and majors in the halls regularly.
"The vast majority of our students come from a background where college has never really been an option." she says.
It is a social background that Dashiell said she understands, "When I graduated high school, I saw that many of my friends didn't go to college or dropped out. They had never had that expectation to go, or they thought they just couldn't do it," she said.
Because these attitudes are often ingrained by high school, when colleges start recruiting in earnest, Dashiell is happy to continue her correspondences full of encouragement and information. "All it takes is one adult in a position of authority to plant a seed of an idea to change the course of your life. I am just trying to plant seeds in these children about what they can become. But it would be nice to see some of these students attend Ohio University."