KU Medical Center program helps teachers engage students from urban schools
July 13, 2018
By Greg Peters
School may be out for summer, but for 12 high school teachers from Kansas City and Wichita late May was time to head back to class as part of the T-SCORE Summer Institute - a three-week academic boot camp dedicated to helping classroom teachers create health science units that better connect with students from underserved populations in Kansas' urban centers, especially those from ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds.
After a 2004 report showed only 9 percent of nurses and 6 percent of doctors are from racially and ethnically diverse populations, and statistics for public health faculty and researchers weren't much better, educators from the University of Kansas Medical Center developed a program to reach underserved populations. The program is known as Teachers and Students for Community Oriented Research and Education, or T-SCORE.
For years, the KU Office of Diversity and Inclusion, JUNTOS and the KU Area Health Education Center had success sponsoring programs that attracted students from diverse backgrounds to learn about health science, but those opportunities were limited. So representatives of the three groups collaborated to organize T-SCORE. In an effort to reach more students, they turned their traditional formula on its head and started teaching the teachers so they could spread the word.
"After many years working with health science programs focused on students, we decided to work with teachers because they can reach a broader range of students," said Karin Chang, Ph.D., a co-principal investigator for the program and director of the Kansas City Area Education Resource Consortium. "In T-SCORE, we want to give them the knowledge and the tools to create health science units that are engaging to their students, so they can share their knowledge of health science."
Ready to launch
T-SCORE, which is funded through a five-year Science Education Partnership Award grant from the National Institutes of Health, launched three summers ago with its first Summer Institute. Five teachers from three of the five high schools in the Kansas City Kansas Public Schools made up the first class, and this year the program includes three teachers each from F.L. Schlagle and Washington, and one each from Wyandotte and J.C. Harmon. Four teachers from Wichita are also part of the program.
"One of the main changes we've made since the first year has been in the way we work with the teachers," said Maria Alonso Luaces, Ph.D., a co- investigator on the grant and director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the KU School of Medicine. "We knew we didn't want a top-down approach, but we didn't understand how important it was for us to engage not only with the teachers but with the district as well, so we would make sure what they do with us in the summer is what they are expected by the district to do in the classroom."
Organizers chose KCKPS in large part because its schools were moving toward an academy model that emphasizes educational pathways. At that time, four of the five high schools had Career and Technical Education Science Pathways programs focusing on health science.
Instead of emphasizing the traditional books and lectures, T-SCORE helps classroom teachers develop health science projects that are relevant to their students' everyday lives. As a result, students become a part of the educational process, coming up with questions about real-world problems that affect their communities. Teachers challenge them to shape hands-on experiments and field studies that promote critical thinking about health care disparities in areas where they live and go to school.
"Students know the needs within their community, however they don't know what make the needs health science-related," said Monique James, a health science teacher from Harmon High School. "Identifying what is lacking within their community is easy, but knowing what it stems from and how to change it is a task all in itself."
The Summer Institute, which runs concurrently in Kansas City and Wichita, is all about comradery and the sharing. Much like the students back at their high schools, the participants lean on each other, whether it's brainstorming a better way to teach a concept, learning about community resources they may not know of, or providing insights into support services that are available to help children who are at risk at home or in school.
"Teaching is usually done in a silo or in isolation from others," said LeAnne Richardson, a science teacher from Schlagle and a repeat participant in T-SCORE. "Collaborating or talking with peers is important because you have the opportunity to share what's working in the classroom and perhaps, more importantly, what's not."
On the final day of the Summer Institute, participants presented their units. The team from Washington, for example, developed a unit titled "Creating a Caring Community," that shines a light on mental health issues that affect students at the school. It's an intentionally broad topic that can include topics such as anger and stress, and more-serious subjects such as bullying, teen pregnancy and suicide.
"The way we wrote the grant is so that it gets kids excited about health care issues in their communities," said Megha Ramaswamy, Ph.D., MPH, a co-principal investigator on the T-SCORE grant. "So we absolutely expected the big items to come up that matter to teens but not necessarily to adults - things like teen pregnancy and gang violence. Kids are grappling with real issues that maybe we don't think of as traditional health science, but they are important to their lives."
Each of the three teachers from Washington, whose specialties are art, English and Spanish, chose a different approach to address a similar topic. All three will try to engage their students by making the problem-solving activities the heart of their projects.
"Having teachers from different content areas working together and building off each other's ideas is really helpful," Chang said. "I think it helps, too, to have somebody else in your building who is working on the same project."
English teacher Davilena Bailey's students will explore mental health disparities in Wyandotte County. Spanish teacher Monica Cabrera-Johnson's students will be giving voice to groups that might be reluctant to have their voice heard. Her students will be interviewing immigrant and refugee students, many who have suffered emotional and physical trauma.
Art instructor Diana Whittington is choosing to walk her students through a group of exercises that will show them the connections between the body, mind and stress and how they can use art as an expression or a release. Along the way she plans to touch on other aspects such as pet therapy and equine therapy to show students alternative ways to approach stress.
"I believe most students will respond positively," Whittington said. "My art classes seem to attract many of our LGBT students, and they often feel their voice is not heard. I believe this group will jump at the chance, but there are other groups that will be more reserved but will appreciate the opportunity for their voices to be heard."
The unit will culminate with the collaboration of all three groups of students on the creation of a community mural at the school. Whittington said her students will rely on Bailey and Cabrera-Johnson's students to inspire ideas and suggest images to illustrate how their community is caring. Local muralist Jose Faus will be one of the resources called upon to help provide guidance both artistically and culturally.
"We hope to build a lasting legacy based on the relationships we have with the schools," T-SCORE Project Coordinator Maggie Cearley said, addressing the program's future. "By working alongside teaching professionals from the districts, we want to develop a rigorous curriculum that encourages students to take action addressing local health disparities."