Professor Linda Leon, left, talks with two of her students after a reading tutoring session. Related: Slide show at end of story.
There are many reasons why UNC has an enduring reputation as the premier preparer of teachers in Colorado. An example is a unique aspect of a teacher prep course where students tutor elementary school children in the Loveland trailer park where they live.
The tutoring is part of Professor Linda Leon's 400-level course, Reading Diagnosis and Individualization. Each semester, upwards of 20 students spend an hour a week for 10 weeks tutoring children from Cottonwood Plains Elementary School. But they do the tutoring in the friendly confines of the Lago Vista Mobile Home Park, where the children live.
Leon's students were already tutoring at the school in 2010 when staff in its reading program found that the majority of those not meeting reading benchmarks lived in the mobile home park about 2 miles from the school.
Leon was familiar with Lago Vista; she had helped secure a trailer in the park for after-school programming that includes homework help, leadership training and English classes. So it was natural to add reading tutoring to the programming.
According to Leon, the reading tutoring is successful on all fronts, noting that there's a waiting list for the Lago Vista program, even though it's a 45-minute drive each way for most of her students, and that parents of children who haven't been referred into the program contact her directly seeking admittance.
"My students really see that teaching is a lifestyle and not a career and they really start to individualize their instruction," Leon said. "In some ways the reading part of what's going on is maybe overshadowed by the mentoring and modeling that's going on because many of our friends at Lago Vista have never known anyone who's attended college or certainly not been on a campus themselves."
Leon said that the one-on-one attention the children get means a lot.
"Our UNC students go to the bus stop and meet them, and so they're seen walking with these cool college kids across the mobile home park," she said. That's a really a sense of pride for them, so I think they get far more than just happens just in a traditional tutoring setting."
Leon's students agree.
"This has prepared me so, so well for the rest of my life," UNC student Ellen Clark said. "Because I know after taking this class that I for sure want to be a teacher."
Student Amber Galicia knows what it's like to grow up living in a trailer.
"I love being able to come into an area where I know that the simple things like books and having that extra help is such a big deal and makes a huge difference," Galicia said. "It's encouraging to know that you're actually making a difference."
Holly Farquhar, who's had two sons in the program, said she notices the difference.
It's a significant difference," Farquhar said. "Their grades have gone up."
Leon added a new dimension to the program last year when 13 children from Lago Vista toured the UNC campus in Greeley. She now envisions a day when some of them will enroll at UNC to become teachers and will be among her students who tutor at the mobile home park.
Another unique example of the lengths UNC faculty go to in giving future teachers the best possible preparation are the bus tours of Greeley that Associate Professor of Reading Youb Kim organizes.
Designed to help students better understand the challenges they'll encounter when they become teachers, as the tour passes both well-kept neighborhoods and dilapidated homes in the low-income sections of the city, Kim notes that teachers must deal with students from all walks of life—the wealthy, the impoverished and those in between.
"The professor's job is to wake students up," Kim said. "Oftentimes, teachers don't realize that some students can't learn because their families don't have food, and learning is difficult for students with empty stomachs."