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English professor, literacy program receive civic engagement awards

March 28, 2014
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Dr. Ruth Cronje
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Dr. Donna Lehmkuhl

EAU CLAIRE — A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire faculty member and a literacy intervention program have been recognized for excellence by the Wisconsin Campus Compact (WiCC).

Dr. Ruth Cronje, UW-Eau Claire professor of English, has received WiCC's Sister Joel Read Civic Engagement Practitioners Award, which recognizes outstanding faculty and staff members who have made significant contributions to the area of civic engagement on their campuses.

UW-Eau Claire's Early Childhood Literacy Intervention Program, Services and Evaluation (ECLIPSE) has received the Esther Letven Campus-Community Partnership Award, which recognizes campus-community partnerships that produce measurable community impact as well as student growth and learning.

In materials submitted in support of Cronje's nomination for the award, she is described as an ever-present catalyst who not only integrates civic engagement and environmental action into courses but who also works tirelessly to institutionalize civic engagement across campus.

Cronje is one of four faculty members who developed an interdisciplinary undergraduate core curriculum — called the Civic Action Leaders (CAL) curriculum — that would move civic engagement to the center of environmental education at UW-Eau Claire. The curriculum places students at community sites and provides them with project-based learning that enhances their critical thinking; team-building; group decision-making; and interdisciplinary environmental science, communication and technological skills.

During CAL's pilot course in fall 2010, students partnered with seven community environmental agencies to produce a printed, audio and virtual video Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour of the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area, which is now available for use by the public. In another course, students worked with community agencies to create a pollinator habitat that will help support the pollinating species that are vital to the Chippewa Valley's ecosystem. The students created educational materials, offered communitywide events and monitored the pollinator species.

Cronje said it's important for people, regardless of whether they live in an urban or rural setting, to feel a connection with nature and a responsibility for environmental stewardship.

"People need a reason to get outside, experience nature and become environmental stewards of their own backyards," Cronje said. "And university students need opportunities to apply the environmental information they have learned and to develop their civic engagement skills in authentic community projects."

More recently, Cronje has taught courses that partner students with community organizations like the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic, Marshfield Clinic and the Community Table of Eau Claire to build community capacity to deliver health care to low-income residents of Eau Claire. Students in a University Honors civic agency course Cronje teaches work with these partners to gather information about community resources available to promote health, survey low-income residents about their awareness of these resources and the barriers they experience in gaining access to them, and organize mini-clinics to screen guests at the Community Table for common health problems.

Cronje is a member of UW-Eau Claire's Service-Learning Advisory Committee and is the institutional liaison to WiCC. She has been selected as a UW-Eau Claire Honors Fellow and, as such, has a goal to build civic engagement into a new Honors Program curricula. She has taught a civic engagement honors symposium since last spring and will teach it every semester for the next three years as the Honors Fellow. She also has integrated civic engagement projects into her English writing courses, her scientific and technical writing courses, and all of the civic learning courses she has taught since the Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour.

ECLIPSE is in its 12th year at UW-Eau Claire and is an AmeriCorps program that serves area low-income and at-risk preschool-age children, assisting them in increasing their language, literacy and social skills to prepare them for school and lifelong learning. The program also gives college students with financial need an opportunity to give back to the Eau Claire community while developing lifelong skills and experience needed in the professional world.

"ECLIPSE differs from other literacy programs because we work from a one-on-one model tailored to individual needs in preparing each child for lifelong learning," said Dr. Donna Lehmkuhl, ECLIPSE director. "The program identifies and embraces the different paces at which children learn to foster continual growth in education."

ECLIPSE partners with Western Dairyland Head Start and affiliated Head Start programs, operating from five sites in the Eau Claire and Altoona area.

"Working with Western Dairyland gives us an opportunity to reach children with the most need in a structured setting," Lehmkuhl said. "UW-Eau Claire students have worked with hundreds of area children one-on-one and have provided additional support in the preschool classroom by increasing the teacher-to-child ratio."

Lehmkuhl said children participating in ECLIPSE have shown growth each year in both language and literacy skills above that of a control group. The program also involves children's families by offering special events during the year, including Dr. Seuss' Birthday and the Literacy Festival.

Cronje and Lehmkuhl, representing ECLIPSE, were recognized March 20 at the WiCC Annual Civic Engagement Institute in Madison.

Campus Compact is a national coalition of nearly 1,200 college and university presidents and chancellors — representing some 6 million students — who are committed to fulfilling the public purpose of higher education. Membership in the Wisconsin affiliate of Campus Compact includes public, private, two- and four-year institutions across the spectrum of higher education. WiCC's stated mission is to strengthen civic engagement and service-learning partnerships between Wisconsin's postsecondary institutions and the communities they serve.

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