Fellsmere Elementary School third-graders showed impressive gains in reading proficiency this year, and one of the contributing factors was the product of a newly forged relationship – Cadets & Kids – between the 3rd graders at Fellsmere Elementary in Amy Shoemaker's class and recruits attending the Criminal Justice Institute Basic Recruit Training Program at Indian River State College.
The unlikely study buddies met through the efforts of Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry to improve relations between the community and law enforcement.
“The program didn't start how it finished,” admitted Chief Touchberry. “We adopted a law enforcement recruit class with the purpose of exposing them to what it means to serve a community beyond what they're getting in the classroom.”
As the program evolved, the recruits attended “lunch and learns,” took a field trip to Fellsmere where they spoke with government officials, community leaders and business owners. To further enhance the program, Touchberry contacted Ramon Echeverria, Fellsmere Elementary principal.
“To the recruits’ credit, everyone in that class was highly enthusiastic about volunteering their time to get involved,” said Dr. Lee Spector, Director of the IRSC Criminal Justice Institute Basic Recruit Training Program. “It exposed the recruits to the other side of service.”
Spector explained that by giving the recruits the opportunity to interact with the community, they see they are more than just a uniform and badge, that law enforcement officers are real people and they are there to help.
“It's not just about putting on a uniform and getting in a car with a red and blue light bar on top, handling calls, writing traffic tickets and investigating accidents. Law enforcement officers spend more time in communication with people, interacting and assisting people more than they do anything else in the course of their careers.
The students of the Shoemaker’s Owl class began writing letters and sending cards to the recruits. When Law Enforcement (LE)150 class visited Shoemaker's class, Chief Touchberry said, “Something magical happened. We were just trying to show them [the recruits] what it feels like to get community support.”
In the end, it was a mutually beneficial relationship with both groups of students supporting each other through their academics. Touchberry noted, “The school year [and the law enforcement class] coincided, but what's most significant about a third-grade class and a law enforcement class is they both have to pass an important test at the end of their learning if they are going to go on to the next level.”
The recruits worked as a team as they went through basic recruit training and shared their successes with the children, who were so motivated by their buddies they adopted the future law enforcement officers' motto: “11 in 11 out; together we will fight it out.” The two groups of students communicated throughout the year via cards, letters, emails and videos.
The Learning Alliance provided instructional support, and the Exchange Club of Fellsmere purchased headphones to help the Owls prepare for the Florida State Assessment and support the Indian River County School District's Moonshot Moment goal of 90 percent literacy by the end of the third grade.
To further bolster the students and build their self-esteem, the Exchange Club purchased police academy hats dubbed “thinking caps” to be worn in the classroom when students were doing important work. “Amy used these hats to incentivize their learning,” said Chief Touchberry, noting “the hats could not leave the classroom, which just elevated their importance.”
Shoemaker's class had a relationship with the recruits, but Touchberry wanted to support the entire third grade. “As a police department, we wanted to help get all of the kids ready for their test.” Touchberry wrote letters to all third graders at Fellsmere Elementary School, reinforcing the message: study hard, get a good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast and don't stay up late. “We wanted the kids to know ‘We're here, we care about you, we want you to pass your exam.’”
“The greatest evidence that we have to say that the partnership made an impact is our gains in our reading scores,” said Lindsey Matheny, Fellsmere assistant principal. “Last year we were at 39 percent proficient with our third graders and overall this year we're at 50 percent. I think that numerically speaks to the benefit of the program.”
All but one student passed the FSA in Shoemaker's class according to Fellsmere principal Ramon Echeverria. “The recruits are part of the big picture; they were part of the many other factors that contributed for us to excel this year.” Other factors were a more precise curriculum, working with an interventionist provided by The Learning Alliance, parent support and the teachers' willingness to look at the data and tweak their instruction.
This is a true partnership between the Fellsmere Police Department, Fellsmere Elementary School, Indian River State College, the Exchange Club of Fellsmere and, of course, The Learning Alliance Moonshot Moment, noted Chief Touchberry.
The Owls were able to attend the recruit's graduation and according to Echeverria, “You talk about a love affair. That cohesive support that we had really made it happen.”
One of the students said, “It helps me support my friends and other people, and now I feel like I am very important to the whole community.”
“We're going to do Cadets & Kids with the entire third grade at Fellsmere Elementary this year. Every kid in third grade is going to get a 'thinking cap' thanks to the Exchange Club,” said Chief Touchberry.
Touchberry notes, “State prisons and jails are full of eighth-grade educated inmates. That's the correlation between literacy and crime. That's why we are deeply involved. We believe in crime prevention solutions, and as a police leader I believe that literacy is a key thing that law enforcement should focus on.”
According to Echeverria, at the end of the school year the children were able to take their “thinking caps” home and one of the kids wears his to bed “because it makes him smarter. The Fellsmere Police Dept. has tapped into that magical world where the kids can fly.”