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Mercyhurst grad students help drive K-12 school success

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Early on, Mercyhurst University recognized the value of partnerships between K-12 schools and universities, both in better preparing the educators of tomorrow and in increasing the academic success of today’s youth. Today, the university’s graduate education program is celebrating the success of two longstanding partnerships: one with the R. Benjamin Wiley Community Charter School in Erie, and one with St. Gregory Parish School in North East, both in existence for approximately 10 years.

Recently, state and national indexes revealed exceptional academic results at the Wiley charter school and at St. Gregory’s. Leaders of both institutions said their partnerships with Mercyhurst have played an important role in driving student success.

Based on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s (PDE) School Performance Profile for 2015-16, the Wiley charter school ranked second only to Collegiate Academy in the Erie School District. And, unlike the Collegiate Academy, the Wiley school has no admissions criteria.

At St. Gregory’s, where educators credit Mercyhurst for not only helping to drive high student achievement but in keeping the doors open, 6th and 8th graders ranked among the highest nationally on the 2016 TerraNova standardized tests in reading, language and math.

The common denominator in both cases, said Mercyhurst education professor Dr. Phil Belfiore, is that the schools employ masters-level Mercyhurst students, most of whom are already certified teachers.

“The Mercyhurst partnerships demonstrate the pedagogical leadership role graduate departments of education should be taking within K-12 education,” Belfiore said. “With these partnerships, we seek to improve education through our graduate students, who are taught current evidence-based practices, and our professional involvement at each school site.”

At the Wiley school, graduate students, nine to 10 annually, supplement the work of staff educators by teaching small group activities, primarily academic interventions, Belfiore said. At St. Gregory’s, typically two to three graduate students a year act as lead teachers.

According to PDE, the School Performance Profile score is based not only on academic performance but many other benchmarks that signal student achievement, including graduation and attendance rates. Using the performance data for each measure and comparing from year to year provides school leaders with a barometer to assess what they have done and how those actions have affected student growth and performance.

“It’s a brilliant arrangement,” said Kathryn Olds and Peter Russo, co-chief executive officers of the Wiley charter school, via e-mail. “In Pennsylvania, particularly in Erie, the revenue we get per pupil to educate is significantly low. Having a cost-effective arrangement to utilize highly qualified teachers to assist as enrollment grows within our disadvantaged urban population is critical. By putting Mercyhurst graduate assistants in each grade level, we can provide more individualized attention. Without those graduate students, it would be more difficult to attend to our individualized need.” 

Although teacher retention is high at what they described as a “mission-driven” school, Russo and Olds said they’ve had to fill an average of one teaching position a year. In recent years, those positions have gone to these Mercyhurst students. “They are proven candidates and they know our system,” they said. “It’s a win-win all the way around.”

According to its agreement, the Wiley school pays Mercyhurst one-half of each graduate student’s tuition and a stipend. The student pays one-quarter of the tuition and the university subsidizes the remaining quarter. Mercyhurst covers the full tuition for each student who assumes a lead teacher position at St. Gregory’s, with the Catholic school paying a stipend.

Mercyhurst’s partnership with St. Gregory’s, which enrolls only 93 students, has enabled the school to remain open while others in the region have closed due to financial and enrollment issues, according to school officials. In fact, they cite data that shows enrollment on the rise:

2016-2017      93 students

2015-2016      79 students

2014-2015      74 students

2013- 2014     72 students

“Having these talented, energetic and idea-filled educators in our classrooms has been a benefit to everyone,” said Fr. Tom Brooks, parish pastor. Combining grade levels and saving on teacher salaries through the support of Mercyhurst’s graduate program have helped sustain the school, he added. And, when vacancies have arisen, Mercyhurst students have been there to fill them.

According to TerraNova test data, the 6th grade at Saint Gregory’s scored at the 90th national percentile in reading, the 90th percentile in language arts and 88th percentile in mathematics. The 8th grade scored in the 90th percentile in reading, the 94th percentile in English/ language arts and 76th percentile in mathematics.

“To the best of my knowledge, we are the only university in the region that has established such sustained partnerships and been as committed to public and Catholic education success,” said Belfiore, who noted that the idea is gaining traction in other areas. In Los Angeles, for example, partnerships between between K-12 schools and UCLA and Loyola Marymount are making similar gains by driving enrollment, increasing academic success and contributing to the preparation of today’s teachers.

“The field of education is changing. Universities and K-12 systems can’t work in isolation anymore,” said Manny Aceves, an associate dean at the Loyola Marymount School of Education, in a recent Los Angeles Times story. “The days of learning to become a teacher at a university, those days are not really the way we want to approach things anymore. We truly feel we can prepare educators in a much stronger way at local school sites.”


  1. Mercyhurst education department graduate student Melanie Neal, right, works with Wiley school 6th graders Luz Mary Feliciano and Luis Hernandez.

  2. Mercyhurst education department graduate student Taylor Glascott, front right, works with Wiley school first-grader Katy Mauk while teacher Kara Barczyk, at desk, works with Jeremiah Blue.