By Gilbert Magallon
With the help of Fresno State sociology professor Dr. Sarah Whitley and her pen pal program, students have been given the opportunity to positively influence sixth-graders at Wolters Elementary School near Fashion Fair Mall.
“They’re trying to teach us how to become little adults and how to be prepared for college like them,” said James Bowmen, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Wolters. “They teach me how to get good grades, and they help me and make sure that we’re trying to do good in school.”
Whitley chose to do the pen pal program with Wolters Elementary as part of a service learning partnership with the school.
“Service learning is a pedagogical tool that we use to give students a real-world experiential experience about what they are learning in the class,” Whitley said. “The goal of it is to provide Fresno State students an opportunity to link what they are learning in the classroom to what’s happening in the real world, and at the same time providing an important community service that is needed in our area.”
The pen pal program requires students to complete a total of 20 hours writing letters and visiting their pen pals at the school.
The pen pal program stays with the students as they move from grade to grade. Starting with fifth-graders at Wolters, the program has now followed them into the sixth grade. Whitley hopes to follow this same group of students until they are promoted to high school.
The majority of students going to Wolters Elementary belong to minority groups in America. Fifty-one percent are Latino, 20 percent are black and 14 percent are white. Whitley said the school has a high number of economically disadvantaged students.
The academic performance index (API) rate at Wolters Elementary is three out of 10, while other comparable elementary schools rate at a seven. The index rates schools on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being the lowest and 10 being the highest.
“I wanted to choose a school that was struggling a bit in terms of having high poverty levels, low achievement levels – lower than some, not the lowest,” Whitley said.
The close proximity of the school to the Fresno State campus also allowed for students to have “easy access to be able to go out there and do observations, to have interactions at the school and have that experience,” Whitley said.
Whitley chose pen pal letters in order to aide Fresno State students with understanding course material, as well as help Wolters students with their reading and writing skills.
“It gives [Wolters students] more of an opportunity to practice their reading, to practice their writing skills, to have a positive role model,” she said. “Because in a lot of cases, there is a lot of transition, people coming in and out of these students lives.”
Whitley said the pen pal program has been very positive for the students at Wolters Elementary and has not only received positive feedback from the students’, but teachers as well.
“It’s been encouraging in terms of writing skills being improved on by the students. Attendance in some cases has improved in the students, because they look forward to these activities, and they have somebody else to talk to,” Whitley said. “A lot of them didn’t have any aspirations to go to college and after one semester know they want to go to college.
“They want to come to Fresno State, or they know they want to go to some other college or university. Without providing them the opportunity, they might not have known what college is like, or that they are somebody who can go to college.”
For Rose Gomez, a sixth-grade student at Wolters, the pen pal program has taught her a very valuable life lesson.
“I’ve learned that I have a choice in life,” she said.