February 24, 2011 — Several University of Virginia student interns recently asked a group of high school students how they would establish a community on a fictitious island. In the discussion, the high schoolers soon realized in order for it to work, some rules and responsibilities would be needed to balance the desire for freedom.
That was one exercise the students in the Philosophers' Club used to discuss their ideas about the purpose of life and other big topics. A program of the U.Va. Women's Center, the Philosophers' Club brings together U.Va. students with Charlottesville teens who've faced challenges in a regular school setting and are currently attending the Henry Avenue Learning Center.
Right now, it's a small program with big aspirations.
The Henry Avenue Learning Center-Women's Center Philosophers' Club is designed to cultivate critical thinking skills and relationship-building through a curriculum that uses philosophy to stimulate discussions, writing assignments and other activities.
"Underneath the academic level is a focus on justice and the purpose of human life," said Jennifer Merritt, director of mentoring and diversity and associate director of the Young Women Leaders Program at the U.Va. Women's Center.
The Philosophers' Club is an offshoot of programs Merritt developed to bring philosophy to middle and high schools when she was on the faculty of John Carroll University in Cleveland. A 1999 Curry School of Education alumna, Merritt worked with Curry professor Carolyn Callahan, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, who continued to mentor her through the seven years she spent at John Carroll.
Loren Intolubbe-Chmil, a Curry School doctoral student working at the Women's Center, told Merritt she was interested in creating a similar philosophy program in Charlottesville, and the pilot program is now in its second year, with Intolubbe-Chmil serving as program coordinator. The two collaborate on curriculum development and other program activities.
Intolubbe-Chmil has worked extensively with youth through the U.Va. Community Relations' Day in the Life program, teaching reading to elementary students and serving as a case manager for women and children. She described the high school students in the Philosophers' Club as teens with high potential, who for a variety of different reasons have struggled in mainstream schools.
Kathy Harris, director of the Henry Avenue Learning Center, said the partnership with U.Va. is working well. She and her staff selected participants who demonstrate responsibility in their decision-making and academic commitment. She said the students are excited to be part of the club and love going to U.Va.'s Grounds. Two students who graduated from high school last year made a point of saying that the Philosophers' Club made a difference for them.
Through the program, four or five U.Va. students act as discussion leaders, meeting with the teens at the Curry School once a week – which also introduces the teens to college life. All the students invest a lot in their participation, Intolubbe-Chmil said.
Fourth-year student Nishina Nambiar said she enjoyed the internship with the Philosophers' Club so much last year, she decided to keep volunteering.
"I wanted to help because it was a new program last year," said Nambiar, a politics and foreign affairs major in the College of Arts & Sciences. She said she wanted to return to apply what worked best last year to this year's program. "I really like developing relationships with the students," she said.
Nambiar works with interns Taikei-Ara Jarmon, Ashley Jones, Nisha Sharma and John Tran in creating a comfortable atmosphere for the club members. Their closeness in age to the students helps in getting them to share their thoughts, several said.
For Jarmon, who is in her second year at U.Va., it's a mutual learning experience as they explore topics together.
"It's a novel way to engage the students," agreed Tran, a fourth-year environmental sciences major in the College who's minoring in philosophy. In most classrooms, high school students are expected to get the right answers, he said, but in the club they can give their own opinions in discussions and activities that focus on love, beauty, truth and justice and how those subjects intersect with their lives.
An added benefit of the club and spending time at U.Va. is helping the teens think about their futures. Sharma said the nine students in the club have all expressed interest in going to college.
Intolubbe-Chmil has received a grant to evaluate the program's impact, and she echoed Sharma's observation. "I've heard from the students and staff at the Henry Avenue Center that they're articulating more interest in future goals they recognize are linked to going to school."
She and Merritt also joined forces with philosophy professor Mitch Green of the College of Arts & Sciences to design an Academic Community Engagement course that pairs U.Va. undergraduates with teachers from several regional high schools, including the Henry Avenue Learning Center, bringing philosophy curricula into their classrooms.
Merritt said an evaluation of the Cleveland programs by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented found students had gained in overall academic achievement, reading and writing skills and critical thinking and more interest in community service. She hopes to see the same success in the Henry Avenue program, she said.
Ashley Jones, a fourth-year foreign affairs and philosophy double-major in the College, said the program serves to reduce the gap and build trust between U.Va. and the surrounding community.
For Kathy Harris – a Charlottesville native and Curry School graduate – that's important for the Henry Avenue Learning Center. "The Women's Center is phenomenal. The commitment, dedication and communication make the program successful," she said.
Merritt has another way of putting it: "We all embrace the notion that 'it takes a village' to support the next generation, and it is a pleasure working with each of these dedicated professionals to help high-school students to bring their intellectual and creative dreams to fruition."