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Promising programs happening in rural New York



“Yep, it’s Worth the Drive”

Each week for a semester, college students piled into a van for the 30-minute drive to Groton Elementary School. What the undergrads and the children enrolled in an after-school program learn from each other: priceless.



A former K-12 teacher and now teaching professor at Cornell University, Bryan Duff

focuses on youth development, especially in after-school and summer programs.  Because

such programs can change youth trajectories, and because they are harder to access in

rural areas, Duff reaches out to rural districts “near” the University each time he teaches a

course. That’s because his courses on educational psychology include off-campus field-

work: a chance for undergrads to use, refine, and add to what they learn on campus.


When Duff reached out in Spring 2018, Groton Elementary principal Kent Maslin reached right back. Yes, the school’s families would appreciate more after-school options. Yes, the children would enjoy regular interaction with adults who aren’t quite old enough to be their parents or teachers. And, for sure, the children’s awareness of college and of the world outside their school would grow from such contact. Duff says that such sentiments, alongside Maslin’s reciprocal concern for the learning of the college students, boded well for the partnership.

Program Development

Of course, programs can’t live on sentiment alone. Resources and experience-tested models are needed, and Duff was fortunate in several respects. First, he had residual funds from a grant offered by Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives, which aims to make community engagement a pillar of the University’s curriculum. Second, Groton Elementary already offered late buses for students, allowing Duff’s funding to cover snacks and rental vans for the three

weekly round trips between Cornell and the school. Finally, thanks to the aforementioned grant, Duff had had a chance in Spring 2018 to pilot-test and improve a specific after-school model.


Each college student was paired with an elementary buddy, based partly on information that

guardians provided about the child’s interests, strengths, and challenges. For one hour each

week, these pairs worked together to write and photo-illustrate a short story. Duff knew (all too

well) that his students had phones that take crystal-clear color photos, so there was no additional

expense there! He also knew that children’s imaginations likely would take stories in directions

that defy photo-realism, so he was glad that he already had a green-screen!


The program culminated in a book-publishing party. Before the event, the stories were combined into three soft-bound anthologies — one for each of the three afternoons that the college students were on campus. Family and community members were invited to the party. A musical slide show, featuring each of the co-author pairs, was followed by 30-second tributes read aloud by each Cornell student to their buddy. The tributes went through multiple drafts to ensure that each one specifically and vividly highlighted the child’s strengths and interests. Duff said that he wanted every child, and every child’s family, to leave the event thinking, “Now that is someone who knows my child well.”




The program served 27 children, ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade.


Enjoy a highlights booklet (one-page excerpts from some of the stories). There’s plenty more where this came from!


Sample feedback from parents and guardians:

We can't thank you enough for the great experience this semester. The book is unbelievable and we will cherish the college students’ speeches forever!

[Child’s name] loved the program and working with [Cornell student’s name]. Each week he couldn’t wait to tell me what they did after school.


Sample feedback from Cornell students:

I loved hearing everyone's tributes and seeing the looks on the kids’ faces when they got to walk up to the front of the room. I know my buddy... loved it, and she was so excited to sign my book and take pictures together all dressed up.... [Child’s] mom even texted me after the event and thanked me for being such a presence in [child’s] life, and how

Wednesdays were her favorite day by far - it made me tear up a little :) Thank you for helping me take time out of my busy Cornell schedule to do something so meaningful. Last night made me forget all about my finals and papers and everything else for a little while.

For more information:

Bryan Duff


(607) 255-8663

If you would like to nominate a program, please fill out this form and email it to gkr1@cornell.edu 

From the website:

Human-Centered Design

The spring 2020 Cornell English and Media Studies course, “Design Thinking, Media, and Community,” explored methods of human-centered design and transmedia knowledge in collaboration with high school English and Art classes in Ithaca and Dryden, New York. Project-based learning combines student-driven research, collaboration, and communication to address these issues. Our goal has been to use design thinking to support project-based learning through transmedia civic storytelling projects: real stories about real issues for real audiences.

Read more about the project and access resources HERE.

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Rural Schools Association
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E-Mail: nyruralschools@cornell.edu

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