UMS program lets parents share expertise with top students

UMS program lets parents share expertise with top students

URBANA — On a recent Thursday at Urbana Middle School, several seventh-graders gathered around a table, diagramming how greenhouse gases work in the atmosphere and using iPads to evaluate their own use of energy.

The students were learning about their carbon footprint and other related topics in a session of parent-led enrichment at Urbana Middle School. The program allows parents and qualified volunteers to come to the school to teach one class period a week for six weeks on a specific topic.

On this day, it's Jennette Moline playing teacher. A professional architect who tries to reduce buildings' reliance on fossil fuels, Moline is teaching the carbon-footprint class.

Her captive audience includes seventh-grader Aneri Patel, who has enjoyed learning how carbon dioxide and nitrogen keep the earth from freezing, but that too much of those gases can be harmful.

"I always thought greenhouse gases were bad," Aneri said.

The school's enrichment program allows parents to share their areas of expertise and top students to receive challenges they might not get otherwise, said Community Connections Coordinator Barb Linder. The program is held during the second and fourth quarters of the school year. During this session, parents and volunteers are teaching computer programming, introduction to proteins, genealogy, family law, toxicology and the environment, and finding inspiration for technical innovation in nature.

Linder launched the program several years ago because she wanted to get more parents involved in volunteering at the school, but found many couldn't accommodate coming in once or twice a week. Some wanted to volunteer on a more short-term basis, Linder said, and many were highly educated or had skills the teachers didn't.

At the same time, she realized a need for students at the top of their classes "who didn't feel like everything was as challenging as maybe it could be," Linder said.

So, she combined the two and came up with parent-led enrichment. The result: "The parents really enjoyed it and the teachers really appreciated it," said Linder, adding that many students now think more critically and take ideas back to their classes.

Students are responsible for any work they miss while they're in enrichment sessions, which often complement the class they're coming from. For example, the seventh-graders in Moline's carbon-footprint course all attend during science class time.

The program not only features parents but volunteers without children at UMS. And what students learn often extends beyond the school walls and into the community.

Last year, students helped the Urbana Free Library survey fellow UMS students about what kept them from using the facility. Because of it, the librarians became so busy with their growing teen program, they're no longer available to teach enrichment classes, Linder said.

She calls the program a "win-win-win" for volunteers, teachers and students, and believes the unpaid helpers walk away from their experiences with a better understanding of the challenges teachers face and an appreciation for how well they do their jobs.

Moline started volunteering after a "casual conversation" with her neighbor, a teacher at the middle school.

"The biggest challenge I have is keeping up with the rate at which the students want to get to how this topic relates to their everyday lives," Moline said. "That's a good problem, because it tells me they want to know how they can take action."

Christine Atkinson got involved because she wanted to be a part of the school, just as her children are. She works for the Urbana-based American Oil Chemists' Society and is encouraging students to evaluate what they eat as part of her teaching sessions about proteins.

"I think if you get kids interested in a fun way," she said, "it motivates them to teach themselves."

Teachers benefit from the sessions, too. Julia Mihelich said it can be difficult to work individually with every child in class. The enrichment program, she said, is "a way to make sure those advanced students get the extra help they need."

She has also noticed increased confidence in students who participate in the sessions. Sometimes, she said, students who might fear embarrassing themselves by participating in class become more comfortable doing it in the smaller enrichment groups. And that carries over to the larger classroom setting.

"It gives them the confidence they need to step up in the classroom and share their thoughts more clearly," Mihelich said.

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