Richmond youth who have faced homelessness and housing instability use research and advocacy to help others in similar situations

Advocates for Richmond Youth members Tiffany Haynes (left), and Elaine Williams, a senior social work major at VCU.

Dmitri Blair, a 16-year-old junior at Richmond’s Armstrong High School, began experiencing homelessness and housing instability the summer before he entered the fifth grade when he, his mother, sister, brother and stepfather found themselves living in a local shelter.

“I think I was 11 at the time,” Blair said. “Then I was in a hotel for most of middle school and beginning of high school. Just recently, we’re getting housing and it’s starting to get a little better.”

As a young person dealing with uncertainty over housing, Blair said it was difficult to understand how to navigate the social services system and how to find, ask for, or even be aware of, resources that might be available to help.

Now, Blair — along with a group of other Richmond young people who have dealt with homelessness and unstable housing called the Advocates for Richmond Youth — is working to improve the support of young people in similar situations.

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Natural Wonders

The James River’s humble rock pools take center stage for a new project that blends research, coursework and community outreach

Open High School students fanned across the undulating rocks on the James River near the south end of Belle Isle, peering into a series of small circular pools that had formed over thousands of years and now pockmarked the exposed granite bedrock surface. On first glance, the pools looked no different from one another. However, as the students rotated from pool to pool, they learned from the day’s instructors, a collection of senior biology students from Virginia Commonwealth University, about the subtle but significant distinctions between the tiny ecosystems and the conditions that had created them.

One group of students marveled at the trails that snails had etched across the muddy bottom of a pool. Then they moved to an adjacent pool to study hydrilla, the invasive plant species that had flourished there. Nearby, VCU student-instructors explained the insect life that had taken hold in two small pools, including one where mosquitoes thrived precisely because the setting was so inhospitable for any other form of life — including predators. Students near shore received a close-up examination of the leaves and branches of multiple species of trees, learning the nuances that separated one piece of plant life from another and how leaf litter falling into pools near the forest edge could form the base of the food web.

The overall effect on the teenagers was one of a gentle nudging awake. Here, these simple rock pools were serving as a real-life lab where many of the scientific principles they studied in class were playing out in compelling fashion. For most of the students, the small pools and their inhabitants would never have attracted more than a casual glance. Now, as their instructors brought each insect or plant into sharp relief, the lifeless came alive. The pools transformed into portals to unique worlds inhabited by remarkable creatures, all in an urban setting within a short walk of their school and in sight of the whining weekday traffic above them on the Lee Bridge.

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VCU announces month of thought-provoking events to celebrate Black History Month

Angela Davis.
Photo by Nick Wiebe

Iconic activist, writer and educator Angela Davis, National Book Award-winning author Colson Whitehead and rapper and Public Enemy member Professor Griff will visit Virginia Commonwealth University in February as part of the university’s celebration of Black History Month.

The month’s events will also feature discussion panels, arts and cultural events, and public lectures, all designed to spark thought and conversation related to the history of the black experience in the United States.

“It is my hope that everyone can find a program or event that excites them and moves them to learn and engage others around their unique perspectives and ideas,” said Yolanda Avent, director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs in the Division of Students Affairs at VCU. “Black History Month is a time to celebrate, educate and inspire the community and to acknowledge the rich history of African-Americans’ contributions to society.”

All of the events will be free and open to the public, unless otherwise noted.

Davis, who has been an activist on behalf of women’s rights, racial justice, prisoners’ rights and more since the 1960s, will deliver a lecture Feb. 24 in the Commonwealth Ballroom of University Student Commons. She will address the current racial, political and economic climate, in addition to her own perspective as an activist and scholar. Davis’ talk is open only to VCU students, faculty and staff. To register, email omsa@vcu.edu or call 828-6672.

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VCU School of Education, Richmond Public Schools team up to boost student success at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School

The VCU School of Education and Richmond Public Schools have launched an innovative partnership to work together to improve student performance in academics at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.

“Our goal, over the long term, is to increase student success on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests in the four major content areas — English, mathematics, science and social studies,” said Diane Simon, Ph.D., senior associate dean for student affairs and a professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education at the VCU School of Education.

The collaboration, known as the MLK Jr. Collaborative Intervention Project, grew out of a survey in the spring by the Virginia Department of Education called “College/University Partnerships with Challenged Schools,” which sought to determine the capacity of Virginia’s colleges and universities to help boost student performance at some of the state’s most challenged schools.

Over the summer, Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden, Ed.D., reached out to VCU School of Education Dean Andrew Daire, Ph.D., to ask if VCU might be able to lend its expertise to help MLK Middle School.

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Teacher Tales: Participants in the School of Education’s Richmond Teacher Residency program share lessons they’ve learned in city school classrooms

Grace Giampietro, a graduate student in the VCU School of Education who is participating in the Richmond Teacher Residency program, teaches a third grade special education class at Linwood Holton Elementary School.  Photos by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing.

Grace Giampietro, a graduate student in the VCU School of Education who is participating in the Richmond Teacher Residency program, teaches a third grade special education class at Linwood Holton Elementary School.
Photos by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing.

For the past five years, a partnership between Richmond Public Schools and the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education has prepared 77 new teachers who have made an immediate impact in 24 of the city’s most challenged public schools.

The Richmond Teacher Residency program is a highly selective urban graduate teacher residency program that aims to create a sustainable pipeline of highly effective teachers who are committed to the students of Richmond Public Schools for the long term.

“Despite overwhelming research that teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in student achievement — and that teacher effects on student learning have been found to be cumulative and long-lasting — poor and minority students consistently are taught by the least prepared, least experienced teachers,” said Therese A. Dozier, Ed.D., director of the RTR program.

“This results in a constant churning of teachers in urban schools that comes with a huge price tag — $6 million each year for Richmond Public Schools, according to the 2014 National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future ‘Teacher Turnover Calculator’ — and, most importantly, the cost to students in terms of the lack of stability in schools and its negative impact on student achievement,” she said.

The RTR program is designed to end these educational inequities. Similar to a medical residency, the teachers co-teach alongside a Richmond Public Schools master teacher for a year, receive extensive mentoring and support, earn a master’s degree in education, and commit to teach at least an additional three years in Richmond Public Schools.

“Teachers who are unprepared in curriculum, teaching methods, child development, and with no student teaching experience leave at twice the rate of teachers who have had this training,” Dozier said.

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VCU’s Green Zone program has become a national model for supporting military students on campus

Photos by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

Photos by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

On a Wednesday afternoon in the University Student Commons at Virginia Commonwealth University, staff and faculty members pepper a panel of students with questions.

“What would you guys like to see from your academic advisors, as far as being sensitive to the needs of our student veterans?”

“What can we say in our communications to veterans? I can’t get them in my office in the first place.”

“Can student veterans get minors, or double majors?”

“I’ve had some students approach me about being in large classrooms that have made them uncomfortable in certain situations. Have you guys ever found yourself in a situation like that?”

“Can you tell us a little bit more about what the GI Bill actually covers, and what the timeframe is?”

By sharing their experiences as part of the Green Zone program, the military and veteran students on the panel are helping faculty and staff learn about the strengths, opportunities and challenges fellow veterans bring to campus.

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VCU captures national honor for community service efforts

VCU School of Dentistry students, faculty and staff volunteer at the Wise County Fairgrounds as part of the Virginia Dental Health Foundation’s Missions of Mercy Project, an initiative to provide dental care for uninsured and underserved populations of rural Virginia.

VCU School of Dentistry students, faculty and staff volunteer at the Wise County Fairgrounds as part of the Virginia Dental Health Foundation’s Missions of Mercy Project, an initiative to provide dental care for uninsured and underserved populations of rural Virginia.

The Corporation for National and Community Service named Virginia Commonwealth University a finalist for the 2015 General Community Service Presidential Award, recognizing the university as one of the top higher education institutions in the country for its commitment to community engagement.

VCU was named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for the ninth consecutive time, but this marked the first time that VCU earned finalist recognition. VCU was one of four finalists in the General Community Service category. The honor, which was announced in September, covers service during the 2013–14 academic year and represents one of the highest acknowledgements a college or university can receive for its community engagement endeavors.

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President’s Forum on Social Justice draws hundreds to discussions

Photos by Julia Rendleman/University Marketing

Photos by Julia Rendleman/University Marketing

More than 100 chairs were pulled close to tables and the volume of conversation pitched upward as the Virginia Commonwealth University community delved into the first of several challenging conversations at the President’s Forum on Social Justice.

Three sessions attracting approximately 500 students, faculty and staff were held in the Commonwealth Ballrooms in the University Student Commons on Thursday.

“We need to continue to hold ourselves accountable and be responsible for ensuring that VCU is everything we say that we want it to be,” Rao told the group. “Climate is really about all of us, how we all take a step forward and lead. All of you have significant input.”

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Program provides students with intellectual disabilities an inclusive college experience at VCU

Education coach Camille Spencer, a senior environmental studies major, helps ACE-IT participant Sarah Lancaster study and work on astronomy homework.  Photos by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Education coach Camille Spencer, a senior environmental studies major, helps ACE-IT participant Sarah Lancaster study and work on astronomy homework.
Photos by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Ever since he was in middle school in Chesterfield County, Teddy Robbins dreamed of one day getting the opportunity to attend college. But Robbins was enrolled in special education classes in middle and high school, so he figured his chances of getting into college weren’t great.

“I’d always wanted to go to college,” he said, “but I didn’t think it was going to ever happen.”

During his senior year of high school, however, Robbins heard about a program at Virginia Commonwealth University, called ACE-IT in College, that provides students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to attend classes at VCU, work in a job and participate in all aspects of the college experience.

“I feel great about being at VCU. I’m really enjoying my time here,” said Robbins, who is taking courses this fall on forensic science, choral arts and LGBTQIA studies.

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Monroe Park renovation to begin in November

Photo by Thomas M Kojcsich/University Marketing.

Photo by Thomas M Kojcsich/University Marketing.

Mayor Dwight Jones, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Monroe Park Conservancy have announced completion of a multiyear campaign to raise $3 million in private funds to renovate Richmond’s oldest city park. The announcement sets in motion procedural steps to allow construction to begin later this year.

“Many of us have labored for more than a decade to launch the renovation of Richmond’s oldest park,” said Alice Massie, president of the Monroe Park Conservancy. “I’m grateful to the mayor, VCU and the many generous Richmonders who have brought us to this moment. It’s exciting to know that the work can now begin.”

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