In the Zone

In partnering with Scholar Athletes to help Springfield high schoolers overcome hurdles to education, AIC has found new ways to inspire its students to succeed.

A few years ago, Susan Petrucelli, EdD, director of developmental education at AIC, was part of a team that was presented with a challenge.

“I work a lot of times with freshmen and one of the biggest challenges that I’ve seen at AIC is that some of our students come in and they lack study skills, they lack the confidence to be successful in academics,” Petrucelli explains.

It was during a period of research and discussion on how to improve the way the College serves its student-athletes on campus, especially those struggling with the transition to the rigors of college life, that an unexpected proposition opened a door that has helped students thrive.

That’s when Scholar Athletes, a Roxbury, Massachusetts-based nonprofit specializing in student-athlete achievement at the high school level, approached AIC about a partnership. After finding success with its program, which launched in the Boston area in 2009, Scholar Athletes was looking to expand its programming in 2014. Springfield was one of the potential landing spots.

AIC became Scholar Athletes’ first partner in the region, and with that, found a solution to the puzzle of how to assist the College’s students—athletes and non-athletes alike—in recommitting to their academic goals.


Scholar Athletes

Scholar Athletes was the brainchild of John Fish, a Boston-area businessman who partnered with the late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and former Boston Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson to pilot the initiative. The goal was to assist in bridging the opportunity gap many inner-city public school students face, utilizing athletics as a springboard.

The program works with schools to establish Zones—classrooms dedicated to the program that offer a place to study, complete homework, investigate the college application process, and learn skills that will help them succeed beyond the walls of their high school.

With the organization’s expansion, Springfield Scholar Athletes is now operating Zones in three of its high schools—Springfield High School of Commerce, Springfield High School of Science and Technology, and Roger L. Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy— with plans for future expansion being explored.

scholar athletes and program director
Susan Petrucelli, EdD, director of developmental education, center, surrounded by her students.
Photo credit: Leon Nguyen ’16

AIC in the Zone

When approached by Scholar Athletes, Petrucelli saw a unique opportunity to engage in valuable community service while implementing a “learn by teaching” model that could help AIC’s own students develop skills that would help them flourish in the college setting.

“I knew it had to be some combination of experiential learning and community service that could serve our students. One of the biggest things about study skills is that you can’t just tell someone, ‘This is how you do time management.’ I have been an educator for a long time, and it is the hardest skill to teach someone. Unless you are teaching it, you really don’t embrace it,” Petrucelli explains.

With Scholar Athletes’ three focuses on health and wellness, academic coaching and mentoring, and college and career readiness in mind, Petrucelli put together the outline for a one-credit course with a heavy emphasis on service. The course was piloted in the spring of 2015 and became official as the community service and learning experience course in January 2016. It remains the only structured course involving Scholar Athletes offered by a Springfield-area college.

Students taking the course meet once a week on campus and, depending on the semester,  spend nine to 11 weeks at one of the Zones as a volunteer for two hours, working with students either individually or in a group. In working with the students at the Springfield high schools, Petrucelli said AIC students have been able to absorb and develop techniques that transfer to their own experiences. Data illustrates dramatic jumps in grade point average and retention.

“What I find is they find out so much about themselves,” Petrucelli says. “They’re learning self-regulation, financial literacy, time management, and all of these critical thinking skills needed to be persistent in their education.”

high school students working together at laptop
Photo Credit: Seth Kaye

Beyond the Classroom

A large portion of the course is based on self-reflection, and Petrucelli says she’s seen students grow in ways that can’t be measured with graphs and statistics.

“I had one young lady who was from the farmlands of Ohio, and in one of the first classes she asked, ‘How am I going to have anything in common with the students at the high schools in the surrounding neighborhoods of AIC? There were days when I rode a John Deere tractor to school,’” she laughed. “We talked about how you talk to people, how you become a better communicator, and how you connect with people. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons they’re learning when working with the high school students—they’re learning how to connect with people.”

Another student in the School of Health Sciences was extremely shy, Petrucelli recalls, but her work with Scholar Athletes helped her develop interpersonal skills she feels will assist her in connecting with her patients.

Through the positive experiences, AIC’s involvement in Scholar Athletes has evolved. Several students have continued working in Zones after completing the course through internships. An AIC student who graduated in 2017 after taking the course during her senior year even received a full-time position with Scholar Athletes in the fall.

While students—both at AIC and in the high schools—are the primary beneficiaries, Petrucelli feels the partnership with Scholar Athletes has also augmented the College’s connection with its surrounding neighborhoods.

“Not only do our AIC students work in the Scholar Athletes Zones, but they also work with other organizations like the Springfield Boys and Girls Club. One of our students works with the Keystone Club and she sees a lot of the same faces that she sees during the day in the high schools,” she says. “I think it’s a great connection because AIC becomes more of a face in the Springfield community.”


-By Chris Maza

Featured Photo Credit: Seth Kaye