A Collaboration With Barberton High School Gives Students a Unique Opportunity

UA seniors pursuing a degree in secondary English education teach local students in place of taking a traditional class on campus.


Madison Nadeau.

Student teachers from the University of Akron enjoy a photograph together at the experiential learning site in Barberton.

By Madison Nadeau, Contributor

Can you imagine that instead of sitting in a classroom on campus, going to class meant getting real-life experience? For nearly 30 years, this has been the reality for UA seniors majoring in Adolescent Young Adult Integrated Language Arts Education. 

A collaboration with Barberton High School allows UA students to get hands-on experience as academic mentors in junior and senior English classes. For an entire semester prior to student teaching, UA students take over a classroom at Barberton where they are responsible for all of their mentor teacher’s typical duties. This includes planning and executing lessons, taking attendance, grading papers, and making phone calls home. 

The collaboration was founded by Dr. Hal Foster in the early 1990s when Paulette U’Rycki, a teacher at Central-Hower High School, approached him saying that the college was not training urban teachers very well. U’Rycki offered to open her classroom to Foster’s students. 

For the first few years, UA students served as tutors and worked with Central-Hower students in small groups. Then, one of Foster’s students realized something was missing and asked why they did not spend more time teaching.

U’Rycki agreed to let the UA students take over her classroom as academic mentors, assuming her day-to-day responsibilities.

“I had never seen anything like it done before. It was too radical,” Foster said.   

This unconventional way of preparing urban teachers by giving them full control of a classroom before their typical student teaching experience was different from what any other institution was doing at the time. 

Over the next few decades, the collaboration evolved into a semester-long project. It moved to North High School after Central-Hower closed its doors and is now at Barberton. 

Veteran teachers Angelalyn Pelfrey and Brittany LaCroix, both former students of Foster, graciously open up their classrooms to UA students and serve as mentor teachers in the collaboration. 

“Although it can be difficult at first to hand over my classroom to university students, I continue to see how rewarding it is, year after year,” Pelfrey said. “I love seeing the academic mentors’ growth over the semester and am honored to play a role in their education journeys.” 

Up to this point in the mentors’ education, many of those journeys have looked different. 

After receiving her undergraduate degree in Writing, UA student Emma Walkinshaw decided to return to school to earn her master’s degree in Education. 

“If you had asked me five years ago what I would be doing now, I never would have guessed teaching,” Walkinshaw said. “Although I always enjoyed working with students, making a career out of it was never the plan. The Barberton collaboration has truly solidified my love for teaching and I know this is what I am meant to do.” 

While the collaboration brings a lot of joy to the UA mentors, it also comes with its challenges. Barberton juniors recently finished reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and wrote their own memoirs. The Glass Castle contains mature content, which can be difficult for the mentors to navigate. Specifically, they must determine how to approach scenes that may be triggering, and offer support and resources when necessary. Additionally, many Barberton students choose to write their memoirs about painful experiences in their lives. Therefore, as mandated reporters, mentors need to be conscious of signs that their students could be in potentially dangerous situations, which may be revealed in the memoirs.

“Reading some of those memoirs was heart-wrenching,” Walkinshaw said. “I actually teared up a few times while grading them.” 

Another component of the Barberton collaboration is relationship building. In previous courses, the academic mentors have learned the importance of building a positive rapport with their students.

Madeline Powell, a UA senior, now has the opportunity to put that knowledge to use. 

“I’ve seen what can come from having a good connection with your students,” Powell said. “After building mutual trust and respect, my students’ grades have improved and they are more comfortable sharing ideas in class, which makes me so proud.” 

On the last day of the semester, Barberton students will join their mentors on campus at UA. Mentors will give their students a tour, go bowling in the student union, explore the rec center, and eat lunch before saying goodbye for the last time. 

“In the past, I’ve seen both mentors and students break down as they say goodbye to each other on the last day,” Pelfrey said. “This collaboration impacts everyone involved in a way that I can’t even put into words.” 

Over the next few weeks, the academic mentors will continue to work with their students before saying bittersweet goodbye. Although this year’s collaboration will come to an end, the impact of this program will last a lifetime for UA and Barberton students alike. 

Over the years, with the help of grants, the university has been able to do research on the outcomes of the collaboration. The research has shown that the students’ grades have improved in every subject and their attitudes about school change after going through the project. Additionally, UA students in the collaboration do not quit teaching at the same rate other new teachers do.

“The collaboration gives students the strength and ability to stay in teaching for much longer,” Foster said.