Rita Leger took her first steps into an elementary school classroom not as a 6-year-old student, but as a Cal Poly Pomona third-year mathematics student and aspiring teacher, thanks to the Ernest Prete Jr. Fellowship Program that links STEM undergraduate students to education career experience.
Leger was homeschooled before going to college and originally wanted to become an engineer, but realized her passion was in mathematics and education. Looking for relevant work experience, she applied to become a Prete Fellow and had the opportunity to create and deliver lessons for young learners at Kellogg Polytechnic Elementary School.
“There’s a unique challenge trying to teach counting to 5-year-olds because it’s such a fundamental thing,” said Leger, who was one of 30 fellows in the 2018-19 academic year. “How do you teach someone to count to 20 or 100, or write it, or do math? It presents its own challenge.”
The fellowship launched in 2017, thanks to a $118,000 gift from the Earnest Prete Jr. Foundation. The program has expanded for the 2019-20 academic year to include three Pomona elementary schools, providing Cal Poly Pomona students with an annual stipend of $5,100 and hands-on education work experience. Fellows attend four workshops that boost their understanding of the elementary classroom and state standards in math and science and receive lesson planning resources to execute an effective lesson. They also dedicate 10 hours a week to the program, with six hours in their respective classroom working with elementary school students.
Leger was matched to a kindergarten class and started with one-on-one tutoring before collaborating with her teacher to conduct lessons. One moment that cemented her decision to become a teacher was teaching a student how to read. The student was having difficulty sounding out vowels between two consonants, so Leger used different reading techniques throughout the lesson. After two sessions, the student was able to form the words on her own.
“We figured out a way she can learn — getting through to a kid or taking a step in a relationship with a child, those are the most rewarding experiences,” Leger said. “I see how hard the elementary teachers try to get their children to learn, and they’re always trying to find a better and easier way for students to understand the material.”
Ryan Skinner, a computer science student and Prete Fellow, was inspired by his mom, a teacher, to explore the profession. The fellowship reaffirmed that his desire to work in the computer science industry, but he is also considering becoming a computer science teacher at a high school or university.
“Security and privacy are important for everyone to learn, especially with kids who have access to the internet and social media all the time,” Skinner said. “The Prete Fellowship was a good experience and hopefully I helped influence a better generation of mathematicians. I definitely understand the struggles of being a teacher more.”
Skinner taught first-grade-level math and worked with small groups of students on their reading skills. He also recognized that he was one of the few male teachers at the elementary school.
“I’m one of the few male adult figures in the students’ lives,” Skinner said. “I just hope I left a lasting impression.”
Applications are open to become a Prete Fellow for the 2019-20 school year: Cal Poly Pomona students must meet the following qualifications:
- Enrollment in a science, technology, engineering or mathematic major
- Completion of 25 semester units
- Earn a 3.0 GPA
- Be a U.S. citizen, national or permanent resident
For more information on how to support the Ernest Prete Jr. Fellowship program in the College of Science, contact Melissa Martinez, director of development, at 909-869-4160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.