Section: News

Kenyon, East Knox partner for change

Kenyon, East Knox partner for change

Kenyon is partnering with East Knox, above.

By Graham Reid

Phoebe Roe ’16 can look back at her high school’s guidance department and remember being shepherded through the intricate process of applying for college. This memory stands in stark contrast to the circumstances at East Knox High School, where one guidance counselor serves the entire district.  This is far from the only difference between the well-funded school Roe attended and East Knox.

This year, Kenyon students have been pushing to help East Knox, an effort that began with Roe, who is also a news assistant for the Collegian. Roe began considering the school district’s plight last November, and initiated conversations with East Knox administrators at the end of the semester.

She started cobbling together a corps of volunteers through the activities fair, campus-wide emails and lots of personal outreach. The first volunteers visited in February.

Victoria Ungvarsky
Students at East Knox high school face limited resources for extra-curriculars and other programs.

The partnership spans the entire East Knox district, which is located a 10-minute car ride from Kenyon in Howard, Ohio and comprises an elementary school and junior-senior high school, totaling roughly 1,100 students. Kenyon students are involved in after-school mentoring, college counseling, and classroom help in reading, math and Spanish at the elementary-school level through a group called KABLE. The group began as The Kenyon ABLE Alliance, working with Knox County’s Adult Basic Literacy Education program, but has since expanded to East Knox. At the high-school level, the Partnership of East Knox and Kenyon (PEKK) sends volunteers to teach short classes in place of electives the school can no longer afford to offer and assist with after-school mentoring.

The district’s financial woes are rooted in the economic downturn and corresponding reduced state and federal funding, according to district superintendent Steve Larcomb. Eight consecutive levies failed, bringing East Knox into a state of fiscal emergency — the district has gone through a 50-percent reduction in staff, including retirements, leaving it short 19 teachers. “We are woefully understaffed,” Larcomb said.

“We’ve cut into the bone marrow here,” he said.

At the elementary school, Kenyon volunteers working through KABLE provide extra help for students lagging behind in reading and math, and also offer Spanish tutoring. Vice Principal Corby Frere has been pleased with the program. “It’s been a really wonderful experience,” she said.

The Kenyon students provide important classroom support, since teachers can’t slow down to work one-on-one when a student needs extra help. Staff cuts eliminated instructors who filled that role, leaving a gap Kenyon students hope to fill.

Frere also praised the commitment of the Kenyon volunteers. “It was really nice to have some consistency on that day-to-day basis for the volunteers at KABLE to come in to provide that service,” she said.

High school Vice Principal and Athletic Director Derick Busenberg echoed Frere’s sentiment, but about PEKK volunteers. “The people who have been coming have been very regular,” he said. “I’ve been pleased with that, because that was a concern.”

PEKK has tried to organize responses to some of the high school’s most glaring needs; since not enough staff are available to teach most elective courses, students must take several study hall periods in their schedule. Volunteers lead classes during study halls, provide physical activities during lunch and tutor students in after-school mentoring sessions.

PEKK is trying to fill these gaps by teaching yoga and gym, taekwondo and ballroom dance. The diversity of programming plays an important role for East Knox students, according to Busenberg. “Our kids are being exposed to some different things,” he said.Victoria Ungvarsky

Nick Gasbarro, president of the Kenyon chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity, saw the opportunity, through PEKK, for his chapter to do regular volunteer work. Two to five Betas go to East Knox every Tuesday during the high school lunch period.

“We thought it was fitting to essentially conduct gym class because we’re all pretty athletic guys, and we’re interested in that kind of thing,” Gasbarro said. “They want to go back and interact more and help the kids more. It is a good time,” he added.

PEKK has also sought to bring college counseling help to East Knox. One guidance counselor serves the entire district; with her time spread thin, East Knox students often lack college planning resources. Faith Masterson ’16 visits East Knox weekly with other Kenyon students to provide advice and information about college. Masterson also hopes to teach a class in the fall in which students can work on applications and learn about the application process and other life skills.

Masterson sees college advice as important but wants to be helpful to students with diverse goals. “I also want it to prepare people who don’t want to go to college — for example, those who just want to go straight into the workforce right after high school — so that they know how to conduct proper job interviews and make a proper resume,” she said. “One guidance counselor can’t do that for [every high schooler].”

In order to help East Knox High School students get information about college, PEKK also organized a visit to Kenyon for the school’s juniors.

Kenyon’s Assistant Director of Admissions Whitney Hawkins gave a presentation to the visiting students on the major details of the college and financial aid application process. “I think it was a huge success to get them here and get them thinking about college and pointing themselves in the direction that they need to be in,” Hawkins said. “Plus they seemed to have a lot of fun.”

Hawkins shared her own experience in telling East Knox students about college accessibility.  “I went to to a small, rural, underfunded, public high school similar to theirs,” she said.

East Knox guidance counselor Karen Smith characterized the visit day as a positive and enlightening experience for the students.

“I didn’t hear one complain about anything, except that they would have liked to have more time in the cafeteria,” she said.

Kenyon volunteers have found their volunteer work at East Knox to be deeply rewarding. “These kids are so great,” Masterson said. “They just take every stress away that you have. You just get to help them with their lives.”

Felix Janssen ’16, who volunteers as a mentor and college advisor, also finds the work fulfilling. “The more you get to know them, and they get to know you too, you develop some kind of personal relationship with them,” he said.

East Knox administrators have been impressed with the efforts: “The Kenyon students have been phenomenal, just very professional,” Larcomb said.

Janssen thinks the impact of Kenyon volunteers goes beyond the specific concepts they teach.“Everybody knows that [East Knox] got cut a lot of money. … [East Knox students] don’t feel like people take an interest in them,” he said. “Knowing that there are a lot of people who want to get to know them, who want to help them, who are interested in them, who believe in them, I think that’s another huge impact that we’re having.”Victoria Ungvarsky

The juxtaposition between the community’s financial neglect of the district and volunteer contributions exists on an institutional level, too. “The community, meaning Kenyon, really wanted to step up and help East Knox Local, which is wonderful,” Frere said. “That’s kind of foreign to us. … We get minimum help.”

The effort has garnered praise from leadership at East Knox for its rapid expansion. “I feel like the program’s progressing incredibly well, very quickly,” Busenberg said. “The involvement and support from Kenyon has been outstanding. For the most part our kids are taking well and benefiting from the program.”

This semester marks the beginning of the partnership; at East Knox and Kenyon alike, volunteers and administrators are eagerly planning next year’s efforts. Longevity is one of PEKK’s main goals. “I’m expecting this to last past when [Roe and I] both graduate,” Masterson said.



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