Not so long ago, Sophie Leshan graduated from high school a year early, eager to move to Anchorage from Ann Arbor, Mich.
“My father received an exciting job opportunity here,” she said. “I decided to graduate so late into my junior year that I missed many of the deadlines for other schools I would’ve applied for.”
Leshan initially believed UAA would be a small part of her undergraduate journey, and considered transferring after a few semesters. But she stayed.
Now, three years after arriving at UAA, Leshan is about to earn her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, poised to graduate this fall with a 3.91 cumulative grade-point average that earned her a spot on the Chancellor’s List.
“All in all, I certainly would say the ‘busy bee’ lifestyle I’ve led since I started at the university has been a whirlwind of learning experiences and building relationships with community members,” she said.
Emerging Leaders Program. USUAA student government. Concert board. Undergraduate research. Leshan dove right in and found she loved immersing herself in UAA’s campus life.
“My initial intention was to propel student programming in order to better engage students on campus to a greater extent than just coming and going to class,” she said. “I found a strong core group of equally ambitious individuals and the service opportunities established a more fulfilling purpose in my higher education experience.”
Learning for life
Leshan says she’s always been what she calls a “Curious George.”
“I found myself superengaged in academics, and my educators were always supportive facilitators of my ever-inquisitive mind,” she wrote. “I experienced copious phases of career prospects during my childhood and adolescence, due to my interest in so many disciplines.”
In the back of her mind, however, Leshan felt a consistent attraction to education.
That feeling coalesced and then grew into action when Leshan began working closely with kids through her volunteer work with Kids Corps Inc., Head Start, her job at Rogers Park Elementary School through Camp Fire Alaska, and many student-teaching placements at the Anchorage School District throughout the duration of her degree program.
“Elementary schoolteachers really do have to be the ‘jack of all trades’ in a sense, as they must cover so many different content areas! The idea that I would certainly need to be a lifelong learner to be a successful teacher appealed to me—I love that my students are teaching me as much as I teach them!”
Examining big-picture issues
The opportunity to take part in research emerged in January, during a conversation she had with UAA education professors Kathryn Ohle and Hattie Harvey about an assessment known as the Alaska Developmental Profile (ADP), which is used to study the skills and behaviors of kids about to enter kindergarten. Leshan had been one of Harvey’s students and was just beginning her advanced practicum courses with Ohle.
“The conversation regarding the ADP was initially brought about as [Harvey and Ohle] were investigating if and how they should prepare students in the teacher education program to administer the ADP,” she said.
Teachers are supposed to complete the ADP over the first four weeks of the academic year, but Ohle and Harvey found the assessment was administered inconsistently.
“Many teachers communicated in our interviews that varying approaches to implementation could significantly alter the data,” she said, “especially considering that some kindergarten students need time to feel comfortable enough in the new environment to showcase their full ability level.”
The professors invited Leshan to participate in a research project as a community-engaged student assistant (CESA), for the spring semester. She also worked on the project over the summer as a College of Education research assistant and was invited to fill a CESA position again this fall.
“I’ve been awarded an undergraduate research grant to embark on an extension of the project,” she said. “That will investigate Alaska educators’ perceptions of what kindergarten readiness looks like and how their views align to the ADP and other literature.”
Why is that important?
Because, Leshan says, assessments and assessment policy is a fascinating arena.
“Over the last few years the word ‘assessment’ has developed a pretty negative connotation,” she said, “though I’ve grown to learn that ‘assessment’ can really mean a multiplicity of strategies to collect information—ranging from informal observations to more high-stakes standardized tests like the SAT. It’s interesting to me to think more deeply about what the purpose of a particular assessment is, strengths and weakness of different assessment approaches, and whom the assessment benefits.”
Making a difference
Outside academics, Leshan chaired the activities committee, planning and hosting events like the homecoming dance, Thanksgiving Day feast and the spring dance.
“My personal ‘Senator Project’ was to establish a puppy room on campus during finals week,” she said. “Though this idea didn’t come to complete fruition due to liability constrictions, I was still able to help arrange therapy dogs’ visits in the library during finals week.”
During her second year in USUAA and on the Concert Board, she became the group’s chief financial officer.
“I was quite passionate about ensuring students’ voices were disseminated in discussions surrounding university budget cuts, prioritization and the proposal to eliminate the Alaska Performance Scholarships.”
Then, Leshan took on a service position, as vice president of the University General Assembly—a branch of UAA Governance comprised of faculty, administrative staff and student constituent groups.
“I was learning a lot essentially about how the university functions,” she said, “and I was able to help ensure this information was shared with students in a more approachable way—an act I noticed was particularly relieving, given the feeling of impending doom fiscal uncertainty can pose on an institution.”
Besides continuing her work with Ohle and Harvey as a CESA this semester and embarking on her undergraduate research project, Leshan is looking forward to presenting some of their findings at the National Association for the Education of Young Children conference in November, in Los Angeles. She says they plan to submit applications to present at other conferences in the Anchorage area as well.
“It will be wonderful to share our experience with other educators from across the country, and begin a broader dialogue about kindergarten-entry assessments, especially as the idea … has gained a lot of national traction recently. My hope is this will inspire other school systems to consider analyzing their assessments to ensure they are helpful for both teachers and students.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement