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$350K Grant Awarded to i.R.O.C.K. Academy for Literacy-Based Mentoring

Fri, 03/04/2022 - 09:07am | By: Karelia Pitts

A photo of the groupDr. Jo Hawkins-Jones, assistant teaching professor in the School of Education at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), has secured nearly $350,000 through a Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Funding will support the i.R.O.C.K. Academy + program at L.J. Rowan Elementary School in Hattiesburg over the course of four years, expanding their ability to offer literacy-based academic support and mentoring to at-risk youth.

In addition to being a leader in producing exceptional teachers in the state of Mississippi, the USM School of Education is committed to partnering with local P-12 school systems to further contribute to advancing education in the state. i.R.O.C.K. Academy is a prime example of these efforts at work.

The program’s name is derived from a core message that participants should walk away understanding and believing about themselves, “I am Resilient, Optimistic, Charismatic and Kind.” It was created in 2018 after leaders at Rowan Elementary shared with a group of faculty from USM about their needs for academic support in math and literacy and mentorship for upper-elementary female students.

The i.R.O.C.K. Academy launched soon after when Dr. Hawkins-Jones led college students from her service-learning class in providing literacy-based mentoring for upper-elementary girls. Mentees were paired with positive role models who engaged in book talks with them. Both the mentees and mentors also received culturally-relevant texts to add to their libraries.

“Having personally grown up in a financially-disadvantaged community in Mississippi, the struggles of students at Rowan Elementary are dear to my heart. For many years, I have dreamed and prayed about opportunities to give back to the Black community and contribute to the improvement of learning experiences of future teachers,” said Dr. Hawkins-Jones. “The combination of those two desires being met through i.R.O.C.K. Academy has been so deeply rewarding, and I am excited to be able to expand our program with support from the 21st CCLC program.”

The 21st CCLC program invests in community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly those who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools. Their goals could not align more perfectly with what i.R.O.C.K. Academy is all about.

In the program’s expanded form, i.R.O.C.K. Academy + will provide literacy-based academic support and enrichment opportunities for pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students and their families. A literacy-based mentoring program will also be offered for third through fifth-grade students. Participants can look forward to a Family Academy to encourage family literacy and parent engagement; a literacy-based summer camp that will provide STEAM education, skill building and career exploration; and expanded library resources, such as new tablets and a collection of culturally-relevant books.

“The benefits of i.R.O.C.K. Academy are immeasurable for our elementary students,” said Tomecia Lewis-Payton, school counselor for Rowan Elementary. “The one-on-one tutoring, personal care and mentoring all contribute to increasing their desire to attend school. It’s so wonderful to see the excitement on their faces as they look forward to spending meaningful time with their i.R.O.C.K. mentors.”

With most families they serve possessing limited access to technology and inadequate knowledge about online learning resources, Rowan Elementary students have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rowan’s administrators, teachers and staff are hopeful that i.R.O.C.K. Academy + programming will help close learning gaps that have widened since spring 2020.

“We are so encouraged by having partners to help us ensure our students don’t miss out on opportunities to learn,” said Lewis-Payton. “The parents of our students have a great desire to see their children flourish, but their capacity to reinforce educational instruction at home is often limited. i.R.O.C.K. Academy allows us to extend learning opportunities beyond the standard school day, making a huge difference for our youth.”

The impact of i.R.O.C.K. Academy is twofold, making a difference in the lives of both the elementary and university students involved. As elementary and special education students from USM conduct the tutoring and mentoring components of the program, they are developing cultural competence and gaining hands-on experience that better prepares them for careers as educators.

As these preservice teachers discuss resiliency, optimism, charisma and kindness with the at-risk elementary students involved and read books with them that celebrate diversity and multiculturalism, the children’s horizons are broadened, and their self-confidence increases.

To date, approximately 70 USM students have completed service-learning through the i.R.O.C.K. Academy. During fall 2019, recent Southern Miss graduate Carrie Clark had the opportunity to get involved.

“I will never forget my time at Rowan Elementary and the special girls I was fortunate to spend time with there. From chats over lunch to reading new books together, working on creative projects and taking a field trip, we had so much fun learning from one another and growing,” said Clark.

As a fourth-grade teacher at Richland Upper Elementary in the Rankin County School District, she is currently applying the skills and knowledge she gained.

“Before the semester started, I was nervous that the differences in our backgrounds and cultures would hinder my ability to connect with my mentees,” said Clark. “I am happy to share that my worries were for naught because the girls welcomed me into their circle, and the experience was mutually enlightening. The cultural competence I gained will stick with me for years to come and continue to influence the way I teach. I am so glad to know that the i.R.O.C.K. program is still thriving and impacting USM and Rowan students in meaningful ways.”

For more information about the School of Education at USM, visit