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Summer 2005 | Volume 28, Number 2 | Campus

No Limits

Local Students Visit SPU, Set Their Sights on a University Education

Getting public school students to think seriously about college can present an interesting challenge. For many, parental encouragement or a university’s academic reputation, even athletic prowess, are sufficient draws; for others, quality catalogs and Web sites may be enticement enough.

Their passionate interpretation of Alice Walker’s writings vaulted Renton High students Sharelle Johnson and Emanuel “Manny” Russell into the final round of the national qualifying speech tournament.

But for those whose sights haven’t always been set on higher education, visiting a college campus — attending classes, meeting students and professors — is sometimes just the dose of inspiration needed to jumpstart their academic futures. It happened that way this spring for dozens of fifth graders from Dearborn Park Elementary School, and for a group of talented members of the Renton High School Speech and Debate Team.

The fifth graders came from an urban school in Seattle’s Central District, a school with an extremely diverse student population — including approximately 98 percent ethnic minorities, predominantly Asian American and African American.

Ed Adams ’97, husband of Seattle Pacific University Registrar Ruth Adams, teaches physical education at Dearborn Park. They proposed the visit, says Ruth, to help the kids see that college is “not just a dream, but a plan.” They wanted to convey this message when students were still young enough to have time to develop strong study habits, take appropriate courses, and earn the necessary grades for college entrance.

Bill Rowley, dean of the School of Education (SOE), and his faculty embraced the idea, and a strong partnership developed with the elementary school. More than 50 of SPU’s teacher-education students, under the leadership of SOE faculty Debra Lierman and Lois Scheuerman, hosted the young visitors. The children sang with members of the SPU Gospel Choir, took part in a science experiment, learned the secrets of storytelling in the SPU Library, and tackled a variety of physical fitness exercises in Brougham Pavilion.

“If we can enrich the life of just one of these children,” says Rowley, “it will have been worth it.” An ongoing relationship with Dearborn Park includes Seattle Pacific student-teaching interns who gain field experience on site at the school.

Like Dearborn Park, Renton High School is diverse. Only about one in five students is Caucasian. When Tali Hairston, director of The John Perkins Center at SPU, read a newspaper account of Renton High’s phenomenal speech and debate team, he quickly extended an invitation to the team to visit campus. The students accepted, and took a campus tour, participated in a class discussion, and performed their oratory on stage in Demaray Hall.

It was only four months since the team had formed, and the students had already won the Washington state championship in high school speech and debate, and earned a trip to nationals. Their raw and fiery talent, along with fundamentally sound theatrical and persuasive presentation, caught the eyes of judges. Several of the students’ selections were chosen from African-American writings, including some by Alice Walker. Before long, Walker herself asked to meet with the team. When they performed her work in front of her, she cried.

Emotions were high, too, when the Renton team came to Seattle Pacific. It was the first time many had set foot on a college campus. “I never thought I could go to college,” said high school junior Jamilia Tyler. Grades, scholarships, admission requirements — it was a lot for them to think about and to deal with. But there, on stage before college students and staff, it felt possible.

“If Christian education isn’t about birthing hope for the future, what is our job?” asks Hairston. “The talent in these students is already there. It just needs someone passionate to pull it out.”

That someone is Renton High School Speech Coach Rebecca Shepherd. “This was the first time any college told these students, ‘We really want you here.’ They now know that college is not just for the rich. Four of these kids are very interested in attending SPU.”

Though the team did not place at nationals this year, the students are ranked in the top 10 percent of the nation’s high school orators. Next year, as seniors, they will be formidable opponents. After that, the sky’s the limit.

— BY Clint Kelly
— Photo by John Lok/ The Seattle Times

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