Education Graduates in Immokalee

My home – the meaning of the word “Immokalee” in the Mikasuki language. Located about 20 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and 8 miles from the Ave Maria University campus, the city of Immokalee is an agricultural center and leading supplier of tomatoes in the United States. Historically, the area has been demographically diverse, originally settled by the Calusa Indians, and followed by the Seminole Indians, who were joined by traders, hunters, ranchers, escaped slaves, and pioneer families. Today, Immokalee still reflects that diversity and consists of a community in search of a better life, with a population largely made up of immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti.


AMU alumni (from L to R) Mary Eckard (’15), Katie Ely (’16), and Jill Riordan (’15).

For many in Immokalee, the “better life” still eludes them. Migrant workers labor under harsh conditions with little pay, and employment opportunities are constantly in flux with the seasons.  According to some studies, 43% of the population live below the poverty line.

When Ave Maria University first broke ground to build its campus in the middle of tomato fields, some wondered why it was making a permanent home for itself so far removed from the beaten path of nearby Naples. But not AMU’s founder Tom Monaghan, who saw AMU’s siting as providential.  He envisioned the role Ave Maria could play as a bridge between the affluence of the Southwest Florida retirement communities and the needs of those in neighboring Immokalee.

Since arriving on its permanent campus in the fall of 2007, the University has been working towards building a relationship with families, individuals and institutions in Immokalee. For example, the Mother Teresa Project provides AMU students with opportunities to serve and volunteer on a regular basis in Immokalee.  Last year more than 10,000 service hours were logged through the program, with the majority of hours served in Immokalee.  AMU’s newly-formed department of Education provided an additional track of engagement.  The Elementary (K-6) Education Program is working in close association with the Collier County Public Schools to offer AMU students the opportunity to work as aids or student teachers in the schools of Immokalee, which for decades have ranked among the lowest-performing in the state of Florida.

As part of the requirements for the Education degree, AMU students complete three semesters of practicum experience, which consists in one full-day per week spent in the classroom under trained cooperating master classroom teachers. This experience culminates in a full-semester teaching internship. AMU students typically serve at least two of their semesters in Immokalee schools. These placements afford AMU students the unique opportunity to work with at-risk students in migrant schools.  For many undergraduates pursuing a teaching career, these experiences are powerful ones.  “Our students all wind up loving the experience of working with the children of Immokalee,” Dr. Seana Sugrue, Vice President for Academic Affairs, remarked. “It is often a life-changing experience for our teacher-candidates who, more often than not, then actively seek out their first teaching jobs in at-risk schools.”

Their search does not take them far from campus. Three AMU program graduates—Mary Eckard (’15), Katie Ely (’16), and Jill Riordan (’15)—are currently teaching in Immokalee. “It has been challenging to meet the diverse needs of my students,” Mary said of her experience so far, adding, “but I have loved every minute of it. My greatest pride and joy comes from my students, their efforts to learn, and their growth.”

Several of the faculty in AMU’s Education Department are themselves active in Immokalee schools on a day-to-day basis. Dr. Joy Bonnaig, for instance, teaches a University course on identifying and working with diverse and exceptional students.  She is also an Intervention Support Specialist at Lake Trafford School in Immokalee. Ms. Shirley Rainwaters, the Literacy Coach at Immokalee High School, also teaches the AMU course EDUC 310: Teaching Social Studies in the Classroom. These professors, and the entire Education faculty, are well equipped to prepare AMU students to flourish in any educational environment, no matter how challenging.

Katie Ely is grateful to have been taught by professors who were also active in the Collier County Public Schools, since they were able to present information with the expectations and procedures of the local school system in mind. “My AMU education prepared me for my professional work by connecting me with professionals working in the school district,” she explains. “These professors provided insights and practical knowledge that was current with educational philosophy and research, and held us to the expectations of the district.”

AMU’s Elementary Education Program is approved by the state of Florida as an initial teacher preparation, and is in line with the most recent expectations for excellence in teacher preparation. Program graduates qualify for Florida professional certification for grades K-6, including ESOL and Reading Endorsements. Two of the program’s required courses focus on teaching English language learners (ELL), and seven of the required courses are ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) infused. These aspects of the program prepare AMU graduates well for working in migrant and at-risk schools.

Jill Riordan spoke about the challenges in working with ELL students, and the joy she experiences when progress in the classroom is achieved. “I never imagined the amount of planning, repetition, and assistance we need to provide,” she says. “It is all worth it to see the growth and ‘ah-ha!’ moments in the classroom. The greatest joy comes from working with students of different backgrounds, and watching them grow into successful students.”

These three AMU graduates are bringing their own diverse backgrounds, and their formation in the liberal arts, into the lives of the elementary students of Immokalee. In turn, they have been welcomed into the community as one of their own. “I feel at home teaching in Immokalee because the sense of community and family at my school,” Jill shared. “It is not always easy to teach at a Title 1 school, but the staff at Village Oaks Elementary is like a family, always looking out for each other and working together to ensure the success, safety, and well-being of our students.”

“Home is where the heart is,” Mary added. “And that is exactly how Immokalee has become home for me. My heart is with my students here in this community.”

For Mary, Katie, and Jill, Immokalee—“My Home”—has become theirs.

By Sarah Blanchard