KENNESAW — Page by page and word by word, Brittany Aguilar helps rising Marietta third grader Abishaie Akin-Cole spell out the first sentence in a children’s book. Aguilar is patient as Akin-Cole struggles with the word “you’re,” prompting the young instructor to bring her student to the white board at the front of the room, where they break down the word together.
Aguilar, a senior studying elementary education at Kennesaw State University, is one of 18 students teaching at Fast Start Academy. A four-week summer program housed in KSU’s Bagwell College of Education, Fast Start is in its 21st year. It caters to a group of second and third grade students from Marietta City Schools, offering them the chance, at no cost to them or their families, to improve their literacy skills and learn from positive role models.
KSU education professors Sanjuana Rodriguez and Megan Adams co-direct Fast Start. Originally a program under the auspices of KSU’s volunteer organization, Volunteer Kennesaw, Bagwell College took over Fast Start in 2016 when reshuffling at Volunteer Kennesaw threatened to end Fast Start. Now, the program is thriving, having nearly doubled attendance from last year with support from Marietta schools and the state Department of Education.
“The mission of the program has always been to serve kids who need it the most,” Rodriguez said.
Two criteria determine a student’s eligibility for the program: if they receive free or reduced lunch, or if they are reading below grade level. This allows Marietta City Schools to be strategic in selecting students it wants to attend Fast Start.
In addition to reading and writing instruction, students in Fast Start receive art education by visiting KSU’s Zuckerman Museum of Art. They are also given ample opportunity to draw and journal.
Marietta schools provides breakfast and lunch for students. The school district also offers bus service for students to get to and from KSU’s campus.
Support from a state grant allowed Fast Start to expand the program from 40 students last year to 100 this year, though only 75 of the 100 have attended this summer. Some families still struggle to overcome barriers, such as access to bus stops, that would enable their children to participate.
The grant has also allowed Rodriguez and Fast Start to partner with Allison Garefino, clinical director of the Children and Family Programs at KSU’s Wellstar College of Health and Human Services, on a project aimed at closing learning gaps created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Garefino emphasized that social-emotional learning, which helps students develop self-awareness and self-control as well as interpersonal skills necessary for success in various facets of life, is an important part of the work CFP is doing with Fast Start.
“We (CFP) were already doing these programs that provide social-emotional support, and we were aware of the work of Fast Start, so years ago this conversation started of, ‘Can we please work together during Fast Start,’ but with limited funds, it was very challenging,” said Garefino. “Thankfully, we received this grant, so we’ve been able to combine our efforts.”
Through this new partnership, CFP trained the student teachers in how to create safe and stable learning environments in the classroom, something most teachers nationwide are not taught, according to Garefino.
“There’s no certification across the board that allows students coming out to be teachers to already know these skills, so we’re really excited that our KSU emerging professionals will receive that training here,” Garefino said.
The student teachers develop their own curricula, which is now enhanced by the added social-emotional learning component.
“What’s exciting and innovative is that they layer on, with this curriculum, this idea of, ‘How do we support [students] emotionally and behaviorally?’ because we know one of the biggest buffers against all these negative things including coming out of the trauma of the pandemic is positive relationships,” Garefino said.
Karla Ramirez, a recent KSU alumna who works as the clinical case manager for the grant, said her focus on somatic psychology, which deals with the nervous system’s response to activities people do during their daily lives, is well-suited to the social-emotional learning dimension of Fast Start.
“All of this just syncs so well because it’s all connected and it’s being able to provide the new or future teachers with the right skills so they can manage what they’re encountering in the classroom,” Ramirez said. “I think that’s something that is so beautiful, is that we’re working in this two-generation approach.”
Students become teachers
At-risk elementary schoolers are not the only ones learning plenty at Fast Start. The undergraduate students who teach are also acquiring skills meant to help them in their future careers.
Erik Vu, a rising senior from the city of Riverdale studying elementary education, has known he wants to be a teacher for some time, so when the opportunity to teach through Fast Start presented itself, he took full advantage. Thus far, Vu has been struck by the diversity in experiences among his students.
“After being in the classroom, it’s a huge eye-opener that the kids come with a lot of different experiences of what they know, and so when you’re making lesson plans, it has to be changed up a little to help support students at different levels depending on their reading level, their writing skills,” Vu said.
Aguilar’s own experiences growing up in Kennesaw have informed her pursuit of a career in education: she wants to be the Latina teacher that she never had for students with a Latino heritage.
Vu and Aguilar work in a classroom alongside three other teachers. Despite having colleagues nearby at all times, they still confront the challenges of keeping their students focused. Vu explained that students also come into the classroom with different behaviors. Even when students misbehave, his goal is to ensure they still feel supported.
“We like to do a lot of positive reinforcement for the students here, instead of punishing somebody and making them feel very negative and scared to come to school,” said Vu.
Aguilar and Vu appreciate that they have connected well with students over just a few weeks.
“Maybe the second day or the third day, I started getting hugs,” Aguilar said, “So it’s just a very rewarding experience to have those kids look up to you and feel safe with you in your classroom.”
As Akin-Cole works through the words on the first page of Dan Richards’ “The Problem with Not Being Scared of Monsters,” Aguilar responds to each word read correctly with “good.” Two other teachers in her room help their students with a writing assignment focused on “long vowel teams.” A girl next to Aguilar and the student working through each word is reading a book called “Chrysanthemum” aloud.
In another room, Vu and his teaching peers have just finished a journaling assignment with their students. It’s not even lunchtime yet, and students have the chance to get their energy out with jump rope, frisbee, soccer, and tie-dye shirts on the green outside of the Bagwell building.
During the school year, Ramirez, Garefino, and Rodriguez met a current KSU student who herself participated in Fast Start years ago.
“I was almost in tears,” said Rodriguez. “It makes a difference. We’re trying to do work that’s meaningful, that makes a difference, and I think it’s also an amazing service that we provide to our community.”