A Bridge to the Community, JEP Celebrates Its 25th

by Carol Tucker
The staff of the Joint Educational Project gathers on the steps of JEP House on West 34th Street. JEP, one of the oldest service-learning programs in the nation, celebrates its 25th anniversary this week with a special reception Tuesday afternoon, April 8 in Town and Gown.

Photo by Irene Fertik
Martin Galindo, principal of Vermont Avenue Elementary School, gets déjà vu every time he sees USC's Joint Educational Project students working with Vermont school kids.

That's because Galindo remembers when he was one of those JEP students, venturing into a neighborhood school to mentor a child or teach a mini-course. Galindo loved the classroom and signed up for JEP for three or four semesters.

"JEP was a wonderful experience for me," said Galindo, who graduated from USC in 1979 and went on to graduate school and a career in education. "I had the idea that I wanted to get involved with education, but I enjoyed working in the classroom so much that it totally sealed my decision."

JEP, one of the oldest service-learning programs in the nation, celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. JEP will mark the occasion with a special reception Tuesday afternoon, April 8, in Town and Gown before the annual USC Volunteer Recognition Awards Banquet. The guest speaker will be Timothy S. Martinez, a JEP alum who was the first recipient of the Grace Ford Salvatori Extraordinary Community Service Award, which has been administered by JEP since 1981.

"There's no better indicator of the special kind of students we have at USC than the fact that JEP has flourished for 25 years," said Morton Owen Schapiro, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "Our students really care about the community, with a commitment that is rare among students in higher education. We're very proud of the role that JEP has played in serving the community and in educating our students."

FOUNDED IN 1972, JEP is designed to link students' academic learning with experience in the urban community surrounding the university. A model of experiential or service learning, the program gives local schools assistance in teaching children. At the same time, it lets college students link the concepts and theories learned in the classroom to real-world situations.

Since its inception, close to 40,000 USC students like Galindo have participated in JEP, assisting nearly a quarter-million children. The program is now a presence in a dozen elementary and secondary schools. Under the auspices of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, JEP draws students from about 45 USC courses spanning the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences, and occasionally from the professional schools.

It has also expanded to several health-care agencies through the Trojan Health Volunteers program, initiated in 1981 to provide experiential learning for pre-med students. Another offshoot program, Project READ, was founded in the 1980s to focus on literacy with upper-elementary-school children.

The program's director, Dick Cone, said JEP has been a catalyst and a constant force in bridging the gap that once existed between USC and the surrounding community.

"We have played a role in bringing together the campus and the community, and helping both to see a continuity between these two worlds," Cone said.

Roderick C. McKenzie, a geography professor and one of the first faculty members to incorporate JEP into his classes, agrees: "JEP has almost single-handedly given the university a community base. It has led to the university's really playing a role in the life of the community in which it is located."

JEP was the brainchild of the late Barbara Seaver Gardner, known for her creative ideas and tireless advocacy for the community. Gardner, the niece of USC benefactors Frank and Blanche Seaver, was working as a research associate at the Center for Urban Affairs, then part of the School of Urban Planning and Development, when she came up with the idea for JEP.Ü

GARDNER CAME to USC after working for the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II by making the most of lean resources. Gardner recognized the potential of USC students, attending college in the heart of an urban community with impoverished schools, as human resources.

"Barbara saw that USC had all these energetic young students, and they were supposed to be learning about the world. Meanwhile, there was this world across the street that really needed their help," said Cone, who joined the program in 1976 as curriculum development coordinator, then took over from Gardner as director in 1980.

JEP started on a small scale, initially involving a half-dozen schools in the neighborhood surrounding the University Park Campus. Gardner organized a conventional program that placed volunteers as tutors and teacher's aides, but it soon evolved into offering teachers of mini-courses in a wide range of subjects, including creative writing, Spanish, business, math, dental hygiene and anthropology. Over the years, specialized subjects such as earthquakes and earthquake preparedness were added.

NORWOOD STREET Elementary School was one of the first neighborhood schools to welcome JEP students into the classroom, said principal Rita Flynn. Norwood's former principal, Ange Kasza, was good friends with Gardner, and JEP was largely built upon that connection.

"We've had a relationship with the students at the USC campus for almost 25 years, with literally thousands of USC students enriching the lives of our students," Flynn said. The program, she said, bolsters the self-esteem of the youngsters, who desperately need individual attention.

"It's provided the modeling, mentoring, tutoring and human connection - a student model from the university who can befriend, encourage and inspire our students to be the best they can be," Flynn said.

The fledgling program took several years to establish a firm foundation in the university - figuratively and literally. After three years, JEP was in dire need of more space, and Gardner wanted to move into an old house on 34th Street that was about to be torn down. When the university administration initially declined her request, Gardner threatened to pitch a big tent in Alumni Park.

As a credit to Gardner's clout and doggedness, the university immediately allowed JEP to settle "temporarily" into the house, Cone said, where it has remained ever since.

It also took time for the program to win over faculty members. McKenzie, for instance, supported the idea of community service but was initially skeptical about allowing students to do it for academic credit.

"I realized these students needed this kind of exposure," McKenzie said, noting that in those days as well as today, many USC students hailed from the suburbs and were not familiar with the neighborhood.

"I think it's a very worthwhile experience. It's a chance for them to see that young people in this community are just as starved for an education as they were at that age," said McKenzie, whose students in several classes can earn 10 percent of their course grade through JEP work.

Although JEP has tried various innovations over the years, the mainstays of the program remain fairly intact. JEP students primarily serve as mentors, teaching assistants or teachers of mini-courses. About 18 students work as program assistants, coordinating with faculty members to help JEP students make the intellectual connections between their volunteer work and the concepts studied in their classes. This works especially well in the social sciences, but academic links are made successfully in the humanities and life sciences courses as well.

"Originally we were naive. We thought that students would naturally make connections between their course work and the community," Cone said. JEP program assistants working with faculty members develop "academic questions" to call students' attention to issues and theories to consider during their JEP assignment.

IN RECENT YEARS, JEP has been instrumental in carrying out national programs, such as the Corporation for National Service and America Reads, both initiatives of the Clinton administration to bring university resources into communities. This work has enabled JEP to build more collaborative relationships on and off campus.

Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, an assistant professor of sociology who uses JEP in several courses, believes one of the program's academic strengths is its flexibility. "It can be built into any curriculum if a professor is willing to take time to look for parallels and to provide the conceptual apparatus," said Hondagneu-Sotelo, who studied JEP in a 1994 research paper on experiential learning.

Hondagneu-Sotelo called JEP "one of USC's hidden treasures."

"It allows USC to capitalize on its geographical location and provides an edge to which few universities can lay claim," she said.

JEP certainly gave Timothy Martinez an edge. Martinez, who graduated from USC in 1981, worked as a JEP program assistant for a dental health education tutoring program. He credits the experience with helping him get into the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and then find work in public health dentistry in Laredo, Texas, serving a migrant community. He now serves as a general dentist for Boston Health Care for the Homeless and dental director of Geiger-Gibson Health Center in Massachusetts, the first community-based health center in the nation.

"The JEP program got me interested in working with the community in preventive dentistry and in the importance of volunteerism," Martinez said. "The experience woke me up to a whole new opportunity - there are people out there who really need services that they can't easily get."