For elementary education major Hannah George teaching took on a higher meaning when a year ago she participated in a Ball State University immersive learning class that would introduce the Muncie native to a community she didn’t know existed and a cause that broadened her passion. “I was amazed. I am from Muncie. I grew up hearing about the Whitely community but from the moment I stepped foot into the program, my eyes were opened about what’s going on in my own backyard,” she said. George was one of just 20 elementary education majors selected last year for the “Schools within Context of the Community” immersive learning class, now in its 10th year. The course aims to show students who will soon be in classrooms on their own how to be “culturally responsive teachers." “That means when we walk into a classroom, students feel accepted,” George said. “They don’t have to check their identities at the door. We teach students to accept others and respect other’s opinions. It opened my eyes to social justice as a whole.” In the class, elementary education juniors spend five days a week for 15 weeks working with at-risk students from Muncie’s Longfellow Elementary School. In the mornings, the college students work with their mentor teachers, a structure resembling student teaching. Then they work directly with third graders to improve reading skills in a program called MP3 – a United Way funded program whose main goal is for children to read at grade level so they are poised for ongoing academic success. In the third grade, students take the state’s standardized reading test, IREAD-3, the Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determination assessment. Third-graders must pass IREAD to advance onto the fourth grade. “Third grade reading level is critical to success,” George said, “our job is to connect with the students and to get them to care about reading. Our primary goal is to get them to third-grade reading levels.” How is this college-level class doing that? “We prepared book boxes for each child, and hand chose books for them based on their interests. It helped get the excited about reading. We would have conversations and talk about comprehension. These are amazing kids and our presence in their lives made a difference. I wish I could go back every day,” said George, now a senior preparing to graduate in May. Third grade reading level attainment - a battle cry of United Way of Delaware County - is a key indicator of future success, says Jenni Marsh, president and CEO of United Way of Delaware County. UWDC works toward improving the percentage of third-graders who can read at grade-level through direct service and funding 28 programs run by 26 nonprofits. Statistics say 80 percent of children from low-income families don't read at grade level. Early childhood education can change the trajectory of one's life. It can end generational poverty. In the “Schools within Context of Community,” class, the college students have their own third-grader to mentor. “We do lesson planning, mentor them, and show them how great reading can be.” For George, her third-grader wasn’t interested in reading at all. “She was a social butterfly,” George said. “She wanted nothing to do with school. By the end of the semester, she was reading chapter books instead of picture books and she said she wanted to be a teacher like me.” George, 22, is a graduate of Delta High School. This year, she is student teaching at East Washington Academy. She hopes one day to return to Longfellow Elementary as a full-fledged teacher making a difference in the lives of her students every day.