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Time magazine gives nod to education program co-created by Rochester Public Schools' Pekel

The creation of the program received some high-level funding from the The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

International Walk to School Day
Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Kent Pekel walks with Shawn Harper, who is in fifth grade at Riverside Central Elementary School, as they walk to school as part of "International Walk to School Day" on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin file photo
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ROCHESTER — Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Kent Pekel indirectly received the tip of a hat from a national news outlet.

Time magazine gave a "special mention" to the education program Along in its list of the best inventions of 2022. Pekel helped develop the research for the online communication tool for educators when he was an executive at the Search Institute prior to coming to RPS.

In addition to taking part in the development of it in his previous post, Pekel helped bring Along to RPS as a pilot program.

"It's exciting for me because my career has taken the shift from research to practice," Pekel said. "And this is an example of a through-line because it's based on research I did at Search Institute and now it's being operationalized."

The communications tool is meant to strengthen relationships between teachers and their students. A teacher can select a reflection question from a library in the program such as "Think of a time when you faced an obstacle. What did you do to overcome it?" The teacher can also create a question of their own.

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The teacher reacts to the prompt, and that reaction can be sent to students, who are then encouraged to give their own response. They can to so with video, text or audio.

The creation of the online tool received some high-level funding from the The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Priscilla Chan, wife of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“We are excited to launch a research-informed tool to support teacher-student relationships, helping teachers make each student feel seen, understood and valued — which is foundational to learning and well-being,” Chan said in a release announcing the program's launch.

Pekel clarified that he isn't receiving any financial compensation from the program.

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In June, Will Ruffin II, RPS director of equity and engagement, spoke about the implementation of Along as a pilot program. He said the district expanded the pilot even beyond the classroom itself, incorporating professionals such as social workers and counselors.

The district surveyed the students following the pilot. When presented with the statement "Along has made it easier to build a relationship with my teacher," 43% of the respondents said they "agree" and 35% said they "strongly agree."

Gage Elementary Principal Kris Davidson wrote a blog post about Along on the program's webpage. He described how Along has helped some students come out of their shells. He included the experience of fourth-grade teacher Carise Miller.

“It is super fun watching some of our quiet kids get excited and engaged,” Davidson quoted Miller as saying. “I learn a lot more about these kids as they become more willing to open up. For kids who have a harder time in a large class environment, I love that Along is a private, one-on-one way to talk to them.”

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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