Bennion Center, Mountain View Elementary School partner to prepare students for higher education

Story and photos by TOM BETAR

Put down the crayons and paint and pick up the calculator and textbook — students at Mountain View Elementary School are being prepared to soar into college and beyond with the help of the University of Utah’s Lowell Bennion Community Service Center.

The Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, located in the Student Union Building, has partnered with Mountain View for about 10 years. During that time they have fostered many positive relationships with their students and faculty. The Bennion Center staff coordinates several programs that are designed to help students and teachers of Mountain View, both inside and outside the classroom.

Nancy Basinger, Bennion Center assistant director and service learning manager, said the center was founded in 1987 and was named for Lowell Bennion, a famous volunteer in the community. He is honored by the Legacy of Lowell event, which is the kickoff to homecoming every year. In 2011, the event was held Sept. 24 at Mountain View. It featured about 1,000 university students and community members working on about 20 different service projects that included everything from making dental hygiene kits to crafting quilts for refugees.

Mountain View Elementary School, located at 1389 S. Navajo on the west side of Salt Lake City, is a Title 1 school, which means it is typically populated by students from low-income families. Students in this area are generally underrepresented at colleges such as the U, so schools like Mountain View Elementary are working to reverse this trend.

Mountain View Elementary School has many programs in place to help students succeed in higher education.

Alice Ma, 22, is the education and advocacy coordinator at the Bennion Center and works with Mountain View children by reading to them throughout the week. She also oversees two student-directed programs that take place at Mountain View. The programs, SOARE and Soaring Eagles, are directed by student volunteers at the U and are set up to get Mountain View students thinking about higher education as early as possible.

SOARE is a program where field trips are set up so students from Mountain View can come visit the U campus to explore and ask questions.

Soaring Eagles is a tutoring program where volunteers from the U spend a minimum of one hour a week throughout a full semester at Mountain View tutoring students, helping out in classrooms or working with students after school. Ma said Mountain View students respond well to these programs.

“The field trips have been successful in the past and they get kids excited,” she said. “The idea is to encourage them to come to college and get them excited about coming.”

Jim Martin, 36, has been the principal at Mountain View Elementary School for two years. He said Soaring Eagles helps tutor his elementary students specifically in math and reading. He said volunteers help all throughout the day, but even when the final bell rings to dismiss students at 2:50 p.m., many of them do not head home.

“We have about 270 kids who stay for an additional hour of school,” Martin said. “So some of those (Soaring Eagles) volunteers are steered toward the after-school time and being able to support kids’ learning needs.”

Ken Kurimoto, the student director of the Soaring Eagles program since May 2011, said many students and teachers at Mountain View need assistance.

“Because of the distraction of other students and learning levels of individual students, teachers cannot teach every student in an equal level, especially with a large amount of students,” he said in an email interview. “People need our help, so we need to understand the strategies and concepts of helping others in need.”

Kurimoto said there is a unique atmosphere at Mountain View that indicates how serious the school is with achieving the goals of higher education. He enjoys the work he does with these students.

“Mountain View is highly focused on the discipline of the entire students including hallway procedures, classroom procedures and respect to authority such as teachers and tutors,” he said. “Teaching them is a very interesting and exciting matter. It does not matter what your major is, teaching other people is important.”

Principal Martin said college preparation at elementary school is now a reality.

Children at Mountain View are spending less time on the playground and more time in the classroom as programs such as Soaring Eagles prepare them for higher education.

“Our goal in elementary school now is having kids be college and career ready,” Martin said. “And anytime they can interact with someone from the university it sort of cements that idea for them.”

Ma said it is true that elementary students respond differently to university students than they do to teachers or administrators.

“University students know what’s going on and can better answer all of their questions,” Ma said. “The (elementary) students get more one-on-one time are more willing to listen to someone who has the experience. They get really excited when university students come.”

Another student-directed program the Bennion Center provides in connection with Mountain View is the Social Justice Gardens. Lacey Holmes, Bennion Center public relations coordinator, said the community garden is divided in two. Half of the space is reserved for families who want to rent beds and maintain their own space. Residents can come and pick fresh produce from the other half. The garden is on the grounds on Mountain View and there is an after-school aspect of the program that focuses on teaching students about nutrition and environmental education.

“The Social Justice Gardens were started by a Bennion Center student and their idea is really to focus on environmental education and really bridging that gap between income,” Holmes said. “It really provides an opportunity for natural organic food in that area that might not be provided any other  way.”

She said much of the west-side work that her organization does is related to Mountain View Elementary.

“I think our mission on the west side is really to get our students involved in bettering the community but also to get the residents involved in higher education and desires for that, so it’s kind of a two-way street,” she said.

Holmes said students should stop by the Bennion Center at any time to get more information on service that can be provided to Mountain View or any part of the Salt Lake City community.

“It really provides an opportunity for students to get outside themselves and to maybe see a different aspect of life than they’re used to, and for them to really do things that they care about and to put their skills to use,” Holmes said.

Principal Martin said being a west-side school has historic challenges, so partners such as the Bennion Center are invaluable.

“(Elementary) schools have traditionally not been very successful with west-side students, so that continues to be a challenge,” he said. “What’s great about this area here is we understand that it is really important to try to pool as many resources as possible for the benefit of the students that we work with. I think that’s what been done so successfully here.”

Martin said these educational partners and programs provide hope for students in the future.

“We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to be more successful with our students because we believe that their potential is huge and we just need to be able to figure out how to best tap that potential so that we can see kids achieving at super high levels,” Martin said.

Martin said right now there is no way to track the progress of his students as they move on to higher education, so it is hard to quantify any success. He said he has seen progress in the past few years, but there is room for improvement in regards to preparing students for higher education.

“We haven’t figured it out,” he said. “We haven’t found the recipe for success but I think we’re slowly and gradually figuring things out and seeing some success. I think we’re on the right track.”

Martin said seeing his elementary students work with students from the U is a great opportunity to plant the seed of higher education.

“Our 84104 ZIP code is pretty poorly represented at the university (of Utah) so it’s nice to be able to make connections with university students,” Martin said. “It’s always powerful when I see a student from Mountain View with a student from the University of Utah because I think that we’re making those connections so that students can start to see the university and higher education as a possibility and as kind of a life plan.”