Expanded Village Project bringing ‘a genuine sense of joy’ to Alamance County elementary school students

This fall Elon’s “It Takes a Village Project” was able to work with 11 of the 12 Title I elementary schools in the Alamance-Burlington School System thanks to a grant from the Oak Foundation.

For Principal Dan Habla, the evidence of the impact of the “It Takes a Village” Project on his students at Audrey W. Garrett Elementary School in Mebane this fall is more than just increased student performance in the classroom.

“I see a whole lot of joy in the faces of everyone involved in this project,” said Habla, an Elon alumnus. “Academically the students are growing, but more importantly, there is a genuine sense of joy and accomplishment throughout the building each evening when The Village is in session.”

That joy has been spread further around Alamance County’s elementary schools thanks to an expansion of the Village Project made possible by additional support from the Oak Foundation announced this summer. A new $1.25 million grant from the foundation is allowing Elon’s unique tutoring program to deepen its impact during the next five years by serving approximately 1,200 students as of this fall, a threefold expansion of the program.

About 300 Elon University students and other volunteers will now annually tutor children and partner with parents and guardians, 60 public school teachers, and school liaisons and principals in all 12 Title I elementary schools in the Alamance-Burlington School System.

Among those children is Ian Mitchiner, a Garrett student whose father, Robert Mitchiner, said he’s seen his son engage more with his school work and classmates this fall following the challenging stretch of remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “He really enjoys math and science,” Robert Mitchiner said. “He also realizes there are other students that are having some of the same problems and questions he might have with his work. My wife and I want our son to enjoy school and not look at it as a chore or something he’s just forced to attend.”

Mitchiner said he’s heard from his son’s teacher about the advances he’s made in reading and how he’s become more confident asking questions. He said Ian definitely wants to participate in The Village Project again in the spring.

The widespread impact from the pandemic on student engagement and achievement makes the expansion of the Village Project even more timely, according to Jean Rattigan-Rohr, vice president for access and success. “We know from our research that many of the elementary school students have fallen behind,” Rattigan-Rohr said.

Each school determined where the need was greatest — reading or mathematics — and the Village Project built the program to meet those needs. That allowed for better alignment between what’s happening in the classroom and the focus of the tutoring sessions.

Elon students preparing to board the bus to head to an ABSS school for a session of the Village.

While in the past, much of the Village programming took place on Elon’s campus, this fall Elon students have been traveling by bus and car to elementary schools around the county. “Schools that have typically not been able to come to us because they are so far away from us have been able to participate,” Rattigan-Rohr said.

Habla said he has seen in his students a deep sense of wanting to connect since they have returned to in-person instruction, with many craving the ability to belong to a group or a community. By participating in the Village Project, “students see firsthand the value of community involvement and our teachers get the opportunity to do what they love to do and to see the support they have from the university,” Habla said. “The Elon tutors are wonderful role models that the students here at Garrett have developed connections with. It is good for them to see these amazing college students taking an active role in their academic and social development.”

Among those boarding a bus on Elon’s campus and heading out to Garrett Elementary each week was Lindsey Hefty ’25, a first-year Teaching Fellow. The Village Project has provided an avenue for students to quickly become immersed in the classroom environment and begin working directly with students.

“While working with students, I’ve learned the importance of patience and adaptability in the classroom,” Hefty said. “The second-graders I am working with had kindergarten and first grade disrupted because of the pandemic, so we must keep that in mind when leading them through the lessons. Because of this, the kids can become overwhelmed sometimes and so I must be quick on my feet and think of a different approach to the lesson.”

Volunteering with the Village Project is not restricted to Teaching Fellows or education students, and the program draws students from across campus and from a wide variety of disciplines. Joseph Urban ’22 is a biochemistry major who was tutoring at B. Everett Jordan Elementary School in Graham this fall after being encouraged to participate by a friend. The experience has been rewarding, Urban said, as he has realized the educational resources he had access to growing up and has been able to play a role in impacting the lives of young students.

“Elementary school is important for building the foundations for learning throughout the rest of our lives, so I feel lucky to have had the experiences that I had as I will benefit from that for the rest of my life,” Urban said. “This adds to my experience at Elon by furthering my awareness of how many communities around me are struggling. The children enjoy our time together and that’s taught me the importance of service and how our actions can change lives.”

Meredith Draughn is a counselor at Jordan Elementary and is the school liaison with the Village Project. She said she has seen students gain newfound confidence at having more instruction and practice with the skills they have missed out on developing during the past year. The school benefits from a range of community partnerships, and Elon’s partnership has a special component, she said.

“It’s unique to have college students on our campus, and that has given our students positive role models to look up to,” Draughn said. “Many students describe Tuesday nights with the Village as their favorite night of the week. Our tutors who consistently show up seem to have found a new comfortable confidence in their ability to lead and manage unique situations. They’ve formed incredible relationships with our students in a short amount of time.”

A celebratory dinner at all 11 Title I Elementary schools in late November concluded the program for the fall, and offered an opportunity for students and their parents and family members to gather with their Elon tutors, teachers and school administrators. Attending the dinner at Garrett Elementary was Elon President Connie Ledoux Book, and she noted the broad impact the Village Project has made in the more than 15 years it has been supporting student achievement in Alamance County schools.

“The program works,” Book told the crowd. “You all being here together is the critical piece.”