Journal Gazette and Sun Times Courier
By Dave Fopay, JG-TC Staff Writer
CHARLESTON - Amelia Suarez spent some time with a group of kids and people her own age bouncing around a gymnasium floor to "right stomp this time" and other prompts from the dance number "The Cha Cha Slide."
She said it not only didn't matter that she's a big-city girl having fun with a bunch of farm-community youngsters but, in fact, that was a bonus. Suarez plans to use her experience from the summer day camp at the Community Center in Ashmore to help with her career as a teacher.
"There are different perspectives, different experiences," she said. "It helps us to perform at our best."
Suarez attends the University of Illinois-Chicago and is one 37 college students who will be juniors in education studies this fall who are in the area as what are called "scholars" with the Golden Apple teaching program.
It's the second year for Eastern Illinois University to be one of host sites for the program that lets college students get teaching experience while they help out with some local programs at the same time. There are seven different locations where they're working and their one-month program ends this week.
Golden Apple scholars apply for the program while still in high school or later once they decide to become education majors. They spend their summers at different universities, depending on their year in the program and what they want to teach.
Suarez said she applied while she was in high school and knew she wanted a career in education because she taught Sunday school.
"I knew I wanted to keep educating kids," she said.
The Ashmore summer camp is a first-year program that brings reading and science lessons, physical activities and more to 22 area kids ages 3-11.
The EIU student community service office is running the program with the support of Ashmore village officials, and having the Golden Apple scholars help made "the perfect trifecta," program Director Rachel Fisher said.
There's a "tight ratio" of campers to scholars and that helps with the camp's main goal of addressing the youngsters' social development, and the teaching experience should be invaluable, Fisher said.
"They bring a fantastic energy and dedication for youth," she said. "It's a great platform to experiment and learn."
Scholar Colum Dillon, a DePaul University student also working at the Ashmore camp, said part of his reason for wanting to be a teacher is to help children in under-served areas.
He noted that demographic is represented among the children at the sites where the scholars are working, adding that the teaching activities in general will aid his career.
"It's very different because we're out of the classroom," Dillon said. "It will set me apart from other students."
The Golden Apple program began in 1989 as way to help prepare students to teach in Chicago public schools. It later became a statewide program after then-governor and Charleston native Jim Edgar wanted to expand it.
EIU and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville along with six Chicago-area schools serve as host sites. The scholars spend each summer at a different institution, each of which emphasizes a different area of education.
At EIU, Golden Apple works "under the umbrella" of the university's Department of Early Childhood, Elementary and Middle Level Education and the scholars EIU hosts plan to teach in one of those areas, said Tim McCollum, the program's director.
McCollum became familiar with the Golden Apple program when he received its teacher recognition award while he was a science teacher at Charleston Middle School. He helped arrange meetings with university officials and said both they and Golden Apple representatives thought EIU would be a good fit for the program.
"Eastern has been incredibly hospitable to Golden Apple," McCollum said. "The timing was just right to do it."
At first, it was "a challenge" to find local programs at which the scholars could work, partly because it was summertime and public schools were out of session, McCollum said.
It was also because it was a new idea to site administrators but day camps and other programs that take place during the summer ended up being a good match, he added.
"They were so impressed with the quality of the scholars," McCollum said of the site administrators' reactions to the program. "Many of them tailored their activities to the time the scholars were going to be here. That's a real endorsement of the program."
The Mattoon Salvation Army welcomed the return of the Golden Apple scholars to work with its summer day camp, director Mindy Willenborg said. The camp provides activities for children ages 4-14, some who are at-risk or have a diagnosis, and "they fall in love," with the scholars, she said.
"I hope to continue it every year," Willenborg said. "I like that the kids also challenge (the scholars). It's not always going to be easy being a teacher."
Kristen Nazorek is a Chicago-area resident working at the Salvation Army camp and one of four EIU students who are Golden Apple scholars. She confidently shared that one of the reasons she wants to be a teacher is that she has a mild case of cerebal palsy and appreciated the help her teachers gave her when she was younger.
"I wanted to give back," Nazorek said.
Golden Apple lets her help kids from "all over," she continued, and that will help approach the diversity of her students when she becomes a teacher.
"I love experiencing every different thing," she said.
Some former Golden Apple scholars who are now working teachers assist the program as "liaisons," meeting with the students and helping plan activities.
Hannah Evrard, an EIU graduate now teaching reading at Mattoon Middle School, is in her second year as a program liaison. She said Golden Apple exposed her to the diversity of students and other aspects of the profession she otherwise wouldn't have expected.
"Education classes inform you of what might happen," she said. "Golden Apple puts you right in the middle. It helped me be prepared to help all types of students."
The other sites where Golden Apple scholars are working are the Immanuel Lutheran Church preschool, the Charleston Community Day Care Center, and the EIU Lego robotics and engineering camp in Charleston and the St. John's Lutheran Church preschool and Douglas-Hart Nature Center in Mattoon.
McCollum said the scholars also do other community volunteer work when not at their work sites or taking part in the seminars, hearing guest speakers and other activities of the Golden Apple program.
He said Golden Apple scholars receive more than 500 hours of training beyond what they get in the college classes and from student teaching. They also get financial support, a total of about $23,000, for their education and for the summer programs, he said.