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‘Dream Big, Work Hard’

Laniyah King

Laniyah King, a fifth-grader at Starke Elementary School in DeLand, wants to be a dentist.

Fifth-grader Laniyah King has visited a few colleges and already knows what she wants to do when she grows up: “Hair, dance and become a dentist.”

“I started hair already and I’m a dancer. The only thing I have to really work on is the dentist with the teeth,” she said this week in Stetson Commons over lunch, adding her grandmother took her to visit Bethune-Cookman University and Stetson University when she was 10.

King and 54 other fifth-graders visited Stetson on Tuesday, Nov. 29, from one of the area’s most impoverished elementary schools, Starke Elementary in the Spring Hill community of DeLand, where 99 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunches.

In its second year, the “Dream Big and Work Hard: Exploring University Life!” program brings students from Starke Elementary to Stetson to plant a seed, as Stetson professor Rajni Shankar-Brown and other organizers say, for them to do well in school and in life.

On Thursday, 45 fourth-graders from Starke Elementary also will visit. Shankar-Brown plans to expand the program this spring to include students from Citrus Grove Elementary School in DeLand, another high-poverty school, and the Chiles Academy, a school in Daytona Beach serving low-income pregnant and parenting students. And she’s seeking grants to one day create Hatters University, which would follow the students into Southwestern Middle School in DeLand with long-term mentoring and a chance to get a full scholarship to Stetson – similar to a program she helped to create as a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte.

Stetson Professor Rajni Shankar-Brown with children in Dream Big program

Stetson Professor Rajni Shankar-Brown encourages children in the “Dream Big and Work Hard” program to show their best dance moves inside the Rinker Auditorium in the Lynn Business Center.

“They are in such a critical age period in their life,” explained Shankar-Brown, Ph.D., an associate professor and the Jessie Ball duPont Chair of Social Justice Education, who focuses on issues of equity, including poverty and homelessness. “The literature and my research reflects that students, especially children of color living in poverty, often begin to feel disconnected at the upper-elementary school level, fourth and fifth grade, and need extra support as they transition into middle school.

“Through culturally relevant curriculum and instructional practices, we can reach them now, in fourth and fifth grade, we can help children cultivate and nurture bigger dreams that they can hold onto when they’re going through hardships or facing barriers,” she said.

During a half-day visit on Tuesday, the 55 fifth-graders attended one of Shankar-Brown’s college classes – Improving Reading and Writing: Content Area Literacy – sitting alongside Stetson students who are majoring or minoring in education. The Stetson students applied their training and techniques to help the children and heard feedback on what worked well.

The children also toured the campus, including stops at the Roland George Investment Program’s trading room in the Lynn Business Center, the Hand Art Center, the duPont-Ball Library and the Sage Science Center. A highlight was lunch in the Stetson Commons, where they could pick out anything and everything they wanted to eat (courtesy of the Center for Community Engagement, which Shankar-Brown thanked for funding this year’s program).

Students from Starke Elementary School

The students from Starke Elementary School take a break on The Rock outside the Carlton Union Building at Stetson University.

Shankar-Brown recruits Stetson students to serve as ambassadors to the kids during the visits, especially Stetson students who are the first generation in their family to attend college or who grew up in poverty.

“First and foremost, we want the children to realize how valued they are,” Shankar-Brown said. “I tell them they’re scholars – I call them Starke Scholars. I tell them, ‘You’ve finished your first college course.’ In addition to empowering the children, this reinforces the importance of our Stetson students being positive change agents and working to transform education to meet the needs of diverse learners.”

Starke Elementary is located 1.6 miles from the Stetson campus, but many of the students “don’t know much about Stetson and they live right up the road,” said Starke Elementary Principal Dwayne Copeland. “From day one, I was kind of shocked at that.”

Spring Hill is a predominantly African-American neighborhood with about 2,300 residents, many of whom live in extreme poverty. It has been called one of the poorest areas in Florida.

“You have to know our population. They don’t get read to,” said Starke Elementary School media specialist Sarah Sieg, who worked with Shankar-Brown to create the program. “Books are just things to these kids. They don’t realize you open a book and there’s possibilities in there.”

Sieg said many Starke students don’t have anyone in their lives who talk about attending college and the importance of doing well academically in order to gain admission. As part of their visit, the children take home a college application to Stetson, an Admissions brochure and a Stetson pen.

“I like to tell them, ‘when you go to college,’ and not, ‘if you go to college.’ If we can plant that seed young enough, maybe that changes one student,” Sieg said. “We call it ‘Dream Big and Work Hard’ for a reason – because it just doesn’t happen. Action steps are what make it happen.”

The program is modeled after one that Shankar-Brown designed at UNC-Charlotte in the mid-2000s, called Middle Grades University, when she was getting her doctorate there. She served as the program director from 2006 to 2008, designing the curriculum and leading activities. Through generous support of external donors, a scholarship fund was developed –  providing one student, among each cohort of kids who go through the program, with a full scholarship to UNC-Charlotte.

Group portrait outside the CUB

Fifth-graders from Starke Elementary School in DeLand visited Stetson University this week as part of the “Dream Big and Work Hard” program to encourage them to do well in school and attend college.

Hatters University, like Middle Grades University, seeks to close the opportunity gap and empower children in poverty as well as future educators. Shankar-Brown emphasizes issues of social justice in Stetson’s program, taking on complex challenges involving diversity and inclusion, such as how children living in poverty, particularly students of color, have limited access and opportunities; how they often lack information to access resources that would help them attend college; and how skin color has been shown to affect the severity of discipline in some public schools.

“We did find those students (in the program at UNC-Charlotte) are doing much better in school academically. As they participated, we saw leaps and bounds as far as their engagement in school. All of a sudden, they felt like they had a purpose. They felt valued and realized their agency in a society that often limits their potential. It was amazing. We must work collectively, bridging theory to practice and working with our community, to build a better world for our children,” she said.

-Cory Lancaster

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