The SMART Program
Mercy Migrant Education Ministry
On her first day at Girls, Inc., eight-year-old Dana wasn't interested in visiting the SMART room. "It will be boring. . . I'm not good at that," she said as she tried to tug the staff member in another direction. An hour later, Dana was engrossed in the detail of building a terrarium, chattering enthusiastically with other team members, curious and proud of the small part she'd taken in completing the project.
The SMART program is a collaboration between the Mercy-sponsored College of St. Mary in Omaha and the local chapter of Girls, Inc. It aims to create a personalized, hands-on math and science environment specifically for girls in grades 2- 4. The idea is to nurture youthful interests, overcome stereotypes about girls' performance in these subjects and eventually get more women into well paid technical and professional positions.
SMART education majors work with the girls, who are transported to the St. Mary campus after school twice a week for 90-minute sessions. In 1997, more than 50 college students logged over 2,000 hours of service in the SMART program, working in small groups or one-on-one. As the girls take apart computers, observe a worm in its ecosystem, design circuits and make miniature volcanoes, they forget what they feared they couldn't do. With each accomplishment, confidence grows. When an experiment flops, curiosity drives students forward.
SMART draws its students primarily from neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American and where family income is less than $20,000 annually. One of a broad range of programs at Girls, Inc., SMART is also just one aspect of learning service programs that are integrated into the curriculum at the College of St. Mary.
Bottom line: you can't graduate from Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, Pennsylvania without first performing community service through the Service Learning program.
Each term, more than 350 students are placed in area businesses, nonprofit organizations, public institutions and healthcare facilities linked to Service Learning. The students learn that people who are poor or homeless have an identity, too -- Kate at the Mercy Center for Women, Elizabeth at Emmaus Kitchen, Jason at the Veterans Administration Medical Center and Virginia at St. Mary's Adult Day Care. For many Mercyhurst students, it's their first experience with individuals whose lifestyles differ from their own. And they are affected. After working with a man who had developed a sign language club, Melissa hopes to work with people who are hearing impaired. Since spending many Service Learning hours in a home for senior citizens, Allison hopes to specialize in geriatric services.
Most students perform more service than is required. During the 1996-97 academic year, participating students exceeded the 2,400 hour requirement by more than 5,500 hours.
Service Learning is not volunteerism. As part of their experience, students keep journals and reflect on their service. Faculty emphasize that reflection means much more than sharing feelings or experience with their friends. Each student explores "What am I learning about myself as I perform this service? What am I learning about people I am meeting? How am I reacting to this experience?"
During the 15 years that Service Learning has been part of Mercyhurst's curriculum, students have performed almost 300,000 hours of community service and raised funds that have benefited 67 facilities in seven states and 13 countries.
Mercy Migrant Education Ministry, Ohio and Florida
Migrant farm workers are among our nation's poorest people. The lifestyle can be particularly hard on children. Going to school is a real challenge when you don't speak much English and you arrive after the school year has started and leave before it's finished. According to one study, 60 percent of migrant children drop out of school before completing the sixth grade.
Most migrant children learn at a young age how to care for siblings and have a strong sense of family responsibility. But without education, many lack self confidence. Most go on to perpetuate their parents' cycle of hard work, poverty and illiteracy.
The Mercy Migrant Education Ministry has a simple answer to the special challenges of educating migrant children: move with them.
Established in 1994, the Mercy Migrant Education Ministry offers intensive education to the youngest migrant school-age children. The school year begins in late summer in Fremont, Ohio while the children's parents are picking cucumbers and tomatoes. By fall, the families -- and the school -- are headed down to Plant City, Florida for the winter and spring citrus harvest. In May, the families return to Ohio to repeat the cycle.
St. Joseph's Elementary School in Fremont acts as the travelling school's home base. It provides the academic curriculum for the mobile classrooms. While in Ohio, the migrant children interact with other St. Joseph's students in the cafeteria, gym, music rooms and playgrounds to get a bigger sense of what school is. In Florida, the migrant students attend class in space provided by St. Clement's Parish. They also participate in special activities with a Catholic elementary school in Lakeland.
Having the same teachers and classmates all through the year provides a level of continuity previously unknown for migrant children. The school moves - but the students, teachers, curriculum, books, class rules and uniforms remain the same. The school serves the same population of children as they progress from kindergarten through the third grade.
The travelling staff includes three teachers, a nurse practitioner and a pastoral outreach worker who strengthens connections with the migrant families. Mercy Migrant Education is administered by Mercy Sister Gaye Moorhead. Parental support for the program is strong. The school serves about 35 students annually.