Unique learning at UNI-CUE

Lasting four weeks during the summer, the University of Northern Iowa's Center for Urban Education (UNI-CUE) holds a small academy for local prospective middle school students. The Leadership Academy is aimed at preparing students for the rigors of middle school and the shift into young adulthood. This year, 22 students from Irving, Cunningham and Lincoln elementary schools in Waterloo took classes in writing, math, Spanish, art and social justice.

Each year, between 80 and 90 students are nominated by their fifth-grade teacher for the UNI-CUE Leadership Academy.

Each year, somewhere between 80 and 90 students are nominated by their fifth-grade teacher for the program, and each summer up to 24 are selected. Assistant director of UNI-CUE Nancy Scoggins-Rose said she tries to pick students who would benefit most from the program, picking those who show the most potential with room enough for improvement.

The academy is not an advanced placement program; on the contrary, the material students learn is mostly review. At the same time, it's not a summer-school program; completion isn't needed because of low grades. Instead, the academy caters to students who could be doing better in their schoolwork or need a boost in self-confidence.

Scoggins-Rose said, "They are nominated not because they excel in certain subjects, but because they show the potential to excel, and maybe haven't had a chance to do so yet. This program to give those children a chance to say, 'Yes, I can do this, and I'm good at it.'"

Tamia Robinson, 11, of Waterloo, attended the academy this year. "They taught us things we didn't know, and they taught us things we are going to need further along in life," she said. Her favorite subject was math, but she also enjoyed writing. She said the classes were just as fun as the many field trips they went on. During the four-week academy, students went on field trips most Fridays, everything from visiting the UNI campus to swimming at The Falls Aquatic Center.

Another student, Marcela Matamonos, 11, of Waterloo, also attended this year. She said, "Math is the best thing I learned. We learned things like fractions, and we learned it in a new way that made more sense." Matamonos said she felt nervous and scared about middle school, but after her time at the academy, she's prepared.

Scoggins-Rose said the academy places a lot of responsibility on the students. On day one, the students put together a code of conduct that is then formatted into a contract that each student signs. She said she does this so "they understand we are looking at them as young adults and not kids."

Also, Scoggins-Rose said the students are not graded. She tells them "What you put in is what you get out." She said this removes the idea that they are being judged; instead, they are being viewed as responsible for their own learning.

This year's group was different from groups in the past because of its diversity, having Pakistani, Burmese, El Salvadorian, Hispanic, African-American and Caucasian students. Each student has somethting to contribute to the group. For instance, one student who came from a Spanish-speaking household was able to assist in teaching non-Spanish-speaking students. This, Scoggins-Rose said, helped build self-confidence in the Spanish-speaking student, knowing she has something important to offer.

One of Scoggins-Rose's main goals with the academy is to build self-confidence. "If all they learn is to be proud of who they are, then we have accomplished at least part of our goal."

For more information about UNI-CUE, visit uni.edu/eop/uni-cue.