By Diana Minogue
For up-and-coming teachers from KU’s Education program, classroom observation is a cornerstone of their preparation for the field. With the closing of the Early Learning Center due to budget cutbacks three years ago, it is becoming more difficult to find a classroom that offers both quality and convenience for a busy college student’s schedule.
“I just get my hours done at home over spring break,” said Savannah Kelly, a sophomore education major and aspiring middle school math and English teacher. She completes her observations at schools near her home, although she admits it would be easier to find an opportunity closer to KU.
“It’s difficult because by the time I’m done with class, they’re also done with school,” she said. “I’d have to skip class to do my observation hours.”
Kelly is not alone in her struggles. For a lot of students, “transportation is a factor,” said junior Kelsey Showers. Showers is a special and elementary education teacher, specializing in vision impairment. She expresses how difficult it can be to find a school that will allow students to observe in the classroom – especially last minute, when limited spots fill up quickly.
“They only want so many at a time…so a lot of times, you can’t get in,” she said.
It was not always this way. Those looking to gain classroom experience before graduation once had the opportunity right on Kutztown’s campus. The college’s Early Learning Center, a lab school located in the back of the Rickenbach Learning Center, gave students a chance and a setting to complete their observation hours without the added worry of transportation or scheduling concerns. Beginning as a site for young children to attend school and an opportunity for education students to observe in the classroom as part of their training, the program provided a service to children of teachers, students and community members alike, until it was cut only a few years ago due to budgetary concerns.
The Early Learning Center’s primary goal was to “provide a model site for education students to learn how to be good teachers,” according to Professor Tracy Keyes, one of two former teachers at the Early Learning Center.
“The lab school served three purposes: to provide research, to train future teachers, and to educate students,” she said.
Keyes has been teaching at KU for 15 years and has seen the Early Learning Center go through two rounds of cutting. In the 1960s, the school encompassed kindergarten through sixth grade students, later adding pre-K. By the 1980s, it had downsized to only pre-K and kindergarten, with close to 40 students when Keyes arrived in 1999.
“They threatened to close the center before,” she said. “It was always a budgetary issue…There is some thought that it was a space issue, too.”
According to Keyes, the “uproar” from parents and members of the Kutztown community moved the university to reconsider this cut and to grant the school a “reprieve” back in 2007. In 2010, however, facing a multi-million dollar budget deficit, the administration decided to end funding to the school, and it was officially closed the following spring. The building space was converted to classrooms, the playground leveled and students were left to scour the community for observation opportunities elsewhere.
Although this move could potentially save $130,000 in operating costs, it does remove one of the largest draws to education majors at the university.
“It’s a shame,” Keyes said. “The ELC was never meant to make money. It was a service to the students.”
She expresses sadness that students have lost this component to their training, one that provided them with over 4,000 observation hours each year.
For Keyes, the biggest issue is quality, when so many schools are what she describes as “mediocre.”
“They need the chance to see what high-quality education looks like, so they can use it in their own practice,” she said.
With enrollment down across the PASSHE system, belt-tightening is a must, and KU’s nursing, theatre and now education programs have all felt the financial cutback. While Keyes and other faculty do their best to assist students in locating observation opportunities, they have accepted that on-campus classrooms are no longer an option.
The administration has its hands tied with funds too sparse to maintain the ELC at its former caliber. It is unlikely that the system will return to KU.
“I think that ship has sailed,” Keyes said. “It’s a lot harder for our students to complete those requirements.”
Because the university has had to allocate these funds elsewhere, she doubts that it will look for new alternatives for its students.
“Now they’re on their own,” she said.