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Oxford Students Find Purpose Through 'Meaningful Work'

Feb. 15, 2017 -- Oxford third grader Amari Jackson woke his twin sister up in the middle of the night, barely able to contain his excitement.

“Hey, Amoni, hey, I start my job tomorrow! Tomorrow I start my job!”

Amoni was annoyed and muttered under her breath before rolling over and falling back to sleep. But she understood her brother’s excitement. For she too has a job.

Both siblings participate in Oxford’s Meaningful Work program, a national evidence-based program that gives students “a sense of purpose and an opportunity to experience success,” according to the program’s website.

Spearheaded by Oxford social worker Cindy Schmidt, the program invites mostly third through fifth graders to apply for “jobs” as teacher helpers in lower grade classrooms. The process includes a written application and an interview with Schmidt or her Case intern Maureen Giardina, which is then passed on to the child’s requested teacher for his or her review.

Students remain in suspense for a day or two before being personally offered a job by said teacher. This is a moment of great joy for the children, many of whom have struggled to find traditional success in the classroom. This may be the first time they’ve been entrusted with a responsibility by a professional adult.

After completing a brief orientation process and signing a behavioral contract, students are issued the most coveted item of all: an official employee badge, complete with their photograph, that they wear around their necks on their work days to allow them free passage through the hallways.

Students usually visit their assigned classrooms during their recess time, their second weekly gym period, or at the very end of the school day. They spend their twenty to thirty minutes either working directly with individual or small groups of students or completing tasks for the teacher.

Amoni, who helps in Sarah Adair’s second grade class, readily admits that she prefers the tasks “because I forgot all about second grade!” She’ll often be found marking papers with the help of a master copy, filling student folders with homework sheets or PTA flyers, or placing folders into the correct mailboxes.

Amoni Jackson reading with a fellow student

“It’s better than recess in here,” she says. “Plus it helps me stay focused on my work after lunch.”

Her younger sister Amiya is in the class and beams with pride when her sister walks through the door. “I feel happy when she’s here,” she says. “And the other kids really like her.”

Her teacher Ms. Adair agrees that Amoni is a big help. “The kids just respond well to other kids. They look up to them and want to impress them with hard work and good behavior.”

Adair had a student last year who participated in meaningful work and she could see how much it helped him manage his own behavior, and this year it’s benefitting her entire class. “Now I get to see it from the other end,” she says of the program. “It’s a win-win.”

Meaningful Work was initially designed by a team of educators and counselors from the Pacific Northwest to help struggling students feel like valued members of their school communities: “This positive behavior support helps students with a history of misbehavior and school failure become contributing members of their schools.”

At Oxford, the program is used both for students who might be considered at-risk and for high-achieving students who need an additional challenge.

Third grader Chelsea Gipson is just such a helper in Marisa Pollutro’s first grade class. She listens to students read, reads aloud to small groups or helps children with their work.

Chelsea Gipson holds up her badge

“I just like it because I get to see the smiles on their faces,” she says. “Now that I’m helping them it makes me want to be a teacher.”

Pollutro believes the value of the program lies in relationship-building. “I get to see my old students, maintaining a relationship of trust and support. And my current students get to form meaningful relationships with older kids in the building. Almost anyone can have success if you build a positive relationship with them.”

Social worker Schmidt agrees. “This program gives kids a sense of belonging. It connects them with adults in productive ways and lets them see their strengths where before they may have only seen weaknesses. It gives extra support to the kids who need it and extra responsibility to the kids who need that.”

In the two years that Oxford has used this program, Schmidt has seen students rise to the challenge of being role models. “Having someone else rely on them really makes a difference, it motivates them like nothing else. If they’ve had an off-morning, spending twenty minutes helping someone else can reset their whole day.”

The program is desirable to many students but Schmidt keeps the numbers low so she can provide proper follow-up and support. She is willing to act outside the box when the occasion calls for it.

Case in point: First grader Armando was mesmerized by the helpers’ badges and desperately wanted to join Meaningful Work. While younger than most applicants, Schmidt approached his kindergarten teacher, who now has Armando’s little brother in class.

“Our teachers are open to anything that will help kids succeed,” says Schmidt.

Little Armando now leaves class ten minutes early a few times each week to help the kindergartners put on their coats and backpacks before the end of the day, while proudly sporting his own badge.

A win-win.

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