Dartmouth gear inspires elementary school students

by Anne George | 1/29/19 2:25am

Margaret Olivarez, a third-grade teacher at Copperfield Elementary School in Austin, Texas, wanted to get her elementary school students to be involved in the school district’s “College Shirt Wednesdays,” an initiative designed to frame higher education as a real possibility for underprivileged students. The Dartmouth registrar, along with more than 30 other universities, helped make this task a little easier by donating a much-needed supply of t-shirts.

Olivarez said that most of her students come from low-income households and many of their parents never attended college. She said that theirs is also a community that is prone to increasing high school dropout rates, so it was a particularly important time to begin “inspiring them.”

Unfortunately, Olivarez said she noticed only a few of her students were able to participate in weekly “College Shirt Wednesdays” because college apparel can be expensive and was not necessarily a priority purchase for parents who have multiple children attending the school.

“I understand why,” Olivarez said. “These parents have two or three jobs, and we are a Title I school. It’s a lot of money to them, especially when they are already working to provide food and other things at home.”

Title I schools are those with large concentrations of low-income students, determined by the number eligible for free or reduced lunch programs. These schools receive supplementary federal funding. 

Olivarez began reaching out to local Texas universities to see if they would be willing to donate some t-shirts to her classroom. She said that because of the high number of schools that agreed, she decided to contact others across the nation. 

“I started to get an overwhelming amount of replies,” she said. “I didn’t expect so many people to just ask, ‘What do you need?’ I began speaking to [Dartmouth registrar] Meredith Braz and she was so kind. She went as far as to make sure that the kids were getting the right sizes.”

The registrar’s office typically does not field requests of this kind, but Braz said she felt strongly about what Olivarez was trying to accomplish. 

“I believe it is important to have someone believe in you, and often people can identify one or more teachers who were significant in their lives and influenced them at an early stage,” Braz said. “While college may not be the best fit or end result for every child, thinking about it as a possibility will hopefully encourage them to do well in school and keep that prospect alive.”

Soon, Olivarez’s project became a community one, with parents volunteering to cut and sew the adult-sized college t-shirts to fit the elementary school students.

“We had a sewing machine at the school for a while,” Copperfield Elementary School principal Georgie Arenaz said. “The parents were very happy with the program.”

Olivarez added that a parent told her that they would not have talked about college with their children at this age had their children not “[come] home with one of those shirts.”

Arenaz explained that “College Shirt Wednesdays” is only a “springboard for teachers to begin talking to their students about colleges.” After this program gained coverage in local and national news outlets, Copperfield Elementary School has been able to organize other college planning events. 

“Dr. Alberto Ruiz, [the dean of the College of Education and Human Performance at Texas A&M University-Kingsville], adopted our school,” she said. “He talked to the students about the importance of a higher education. He was one of 10 children in his family and he was a first-generation college student. We had another person who came to visit us from the University of Minnesota and he was the son of migrant workers, so I really like how this story resonates with adults because they understand the big picture.”

In the past, the College’s registrar’s office has donated college-themed gifts to Native American elementary school students in New Mexico, according to Braz.

“Those students became our pen pals, writing to us about themselves,” she said. “We would write back and also send snapshots of Dartmouth. They loved the snow.”

At Copperfield Elementary School, Olivarez said that her students will “continue to wear their Dartmouth shirts with pride.”