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Joni Ragle’s office walls are covered in t-shirts. The colorful shirts, in a hodgepodge of vibrant reds, inky blacks, and army greens, represent winning designs chosen for All Campus Day, a field day-like event for middle schoolers that takes place each spring as part of Southwestern University’s Operation Achievement.
“It’s a big deal to have your t-shirt design chosen,” says Joni, the director of the twenty-six-year-old program. She notes that the all-time favorite so far has been the red, white, and black “I ♥ NY”-inspired “I ♥ OA” shirt, followed closely by a Superman-inspired design.
The middle school students pair up with Southwestern University student mentors to design the shirts. “It’s a fun day for everyone,” Joni adds. “The middle school students get to spend part of the day on [Southwestern’s] campus with their mentors, go to class, eat in the cafeteria, have entertainment provided during lunch, go on an official campus tour, play some games, and then go back to their own schools.”
Throughout the school year, Operation Achievement sponsors events like All Campus Day for their middle school participants, such as the fall carnival and a martial arts day. But it’s not all fun and games. It’s about supporting student success.
What makes the program work? Small groups, for one thing. Only twenty to twenty-two students from each school are selected to participate. Also, the program hires an equal or greater number of Southwestern students to act as program mentors. Last year the program staffed ninety-three mentors who accumulated almost 3,000 volunteer hours in activities such as assisting students with homework.
According to Joni, it’s not uncommon to see students’ grades jump a full letter grade after they enroll in the program. Last year, eighty percent of Tippit students participating in Operation Achievement improved their grades, as did sixty-eight percent of Forbes participants and eighty-two percent of Benold participants.
The program began more than twenty-five years ago in Southwestern University’s College of Education with the goal of helping Georgetown ISD’s middle school students improve their grades, study habits, critical thinking, and time management skills through weekly meetings and active mentorship.
The program is a win-win for university and middle school students. “The middle school students get help with homework, exposure to college, access to resources they might otherwise not get exposure to, but I think the mentors enjoy the program and benefit from it equally,” Joni explains.
Not only do university students have an opportunity to make a real difference in a child’s life, but they also “get an opportunity to give back to the community and the education system,” says Joni, adding that many Operation Achievement staff and mentors go on to be teachers.
Ali Berner, an education major and staff supervisor for Operation Achievement, joined as a mentor during her freshman year and has remained with the program through her college career.
“The sixth graders especially will come in and be super shy, but by the end of it, they’ll just blossom. And that’s really awesome to see and be a part of,” she says.
Learn more about Operation Achievement at http://www.southwestern.edu/academics/oa/
By Rachel Brownlow
Photos by Todd White