PENDLETON --- A service learning project that pairs Early Childhood Development (ECD) students with at-risk kindergarteners to improve the children's language development skills has won the S.C. Commission on Higher Education's Commendation of Excellence in Service Learning.

ECD Program Coordinator Meredith McClure traveled to Columbia today (May 5) to accept the award. 

The annual competition recognizes three of the most commendable service learning projects from the nominees across the state.  One award is presented to a public four-year college or university project, one to a public two-year college, and one to an independent college or university.

The project, called Meeting Early Needs through Oral Reading (MENTOR), involves a partnership with La France Elementary School where each ECD 131 Language Arts student is paired with a kindergartener, or a buddy, who is at risk in his or her language development skills. 

The MENTOR program was piloted in the fall of 2014 and was repeated in fall 2015. 

The ECD students are tasked with creating activities to engage these "at-risk" children using strategies that have been introduced and studied during the lecture portion of the ECD 131 class. After creating active-learning plans, the ECD students engage with their buddies through planned activities that strengthen their language arts, as well as their social skills.

"It's more than just reading; it's a safe place where adults care about them," said McClure.

 "Through these active-learning plans, our students learned about stages of development, and the children benefited from interaction with an adult who cares and gives them personal attention to help them to succeed," said McClure.

After each of the 25-minute weekly visits, students were assigned reflection questions to contemplate and write about. 

"The goal is to create intentional teachers who are responsive and reflective," said McClure.

"Reflections point towards growth of the learners' relationships.  A bond forms. Kids open up and share. My students light up when they see that connection with the child," she said.  Students also author and illustrate a book they share with their buddy on the last visit. 

"As an instructor, my payoff is to observe students, first hand, working with school-age children and over a semester to watch both of them grow academically and personally. By the end of the semester, my students are analyzing developmental levels and creating activities for individual children based on what they learned during the semester.  When I look at their first and then their last visit with the children, I see tremendous growth," she said.

"Students tell me when their buddy is absent, and they are paired with a different child, they see the difference in students and their learning styles.  The biggest learning moment is when they compare the rates of development and growth," she said.

"The MENTOR program is an opportunity for students to practice what they want to do and to make a difference in a child's life.  In their reflection statement, they have to write to me about whether or not this class has been beneficial.  Every student felt it had been and they recognized that they got excited about their own education.  Many say, 'I felt like a real teacher there.'  And that's really exciting," McClure said.

"Any time that students get a hands on, experiential learning opportunity to apply new knowledge while connecting with prior knowledge, the learning is always richer.  This MENTOR service learning project has proven to be that type of experience for our Early Childhood Development students.  My students were asked to reflect on the activity that was selected, the rationale for that selection, if the expectations were met, and what was learned about the kindergarten buddy after each MENTOR visit. These reflections allowed us to see the growth that took place over the semester.  I am not sure who actually reaped the most benefit, the kindergarten buddy or the ECD student, but I believe that everyone left this experience better than when they began," said McClure.