When Carlyn Covington ’14, and her classmates in the Children’s Health Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) traveled to New York City last fall, they weren’t taking pictures of the Empire State Building or Times Square. Instead, they posed in front of a Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter school, one of several schools they studied in class.

Covington describes the living-learning community and associated class, Children and Their Worlds, as political-science-meets-psychology. Her interest in the course stemmed from a desire to someday use her leadership studies major in a career working with children. She and her classmates, along with faculty advisors Rick Mayes and Catherine Bagwell, spent the fall exploring issues related to the physical, mental, and educational health of children.

Early on, the class read and discussed the book, “Work Hard, Be Nice,” which profiles KIPP’s founders and their unconventional approach to teaching. KIPP schools operate on five core principles — measurable high expectations; putting the choice to enroll in KIPP in the hands of students and families; an extended school day, week, and year; an emphasis on effective leadership with more control over school operations; and a focus on high performance that enables students to succeed at the nation’s best high schools and colleges. Covington and her classmates then spent fall break in the back of a classroom observing the program in action and meeting with teachers to discuss their techniques. “We studied things theoretically,” Covington says. “But we got to have a real-life experience with the people we had read about.”

Students in each SSIR community immerse themselves in a topic of interest over the course of a year by living, traveling, and studying together, and creating and implementing a capstone project during the spring semester. According to Andy Gurka, director of living-learning and Roadmap programs, SSIR was created to address students’ desire for a more academically rigorous experience outside the classroom. “SSIR allows students to connect to continue conversations that begin in class,” he says.

While living with people she hadn’t met before could have been a challenge, Covington found that everyone was committed to the process. Their faculty advisors began the year by getting to know each student individually through private meetings, and by gathering the students together at their homes for dinner and dessert. The students bonded through late-night conversations in the Lakeview residence hall lounge over their assigned reading. Covington also shared that Facebook played a big role in building the community. “Initially our R.A. started a Facebook group so she could communicate with us,” she says. “But before long, we were posting articles on topics we had discussed in class, and sharing inside jokes. We still post in the Facebook group even now that class is over.”

The spring capstone project also allowed Covington the opportunity to combine her artistic talents and her interest in working with children. Along with two classmates who shared an interest in art therapy, Covington developed a six-week art program that introduced young students to the idea of art as a form of expression and a possible career path.

With help from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement's Build It initiative, they shared the program with Overby-Sheppard Elementary School in Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood. They made sure the students were working with high-quality materials and tailored the lessons to show how art is a part of everyday life. Their program was so well received that Covington and her two classmates have been asked to return to Overby-Sheppard this spring to work with a new group of students.

While living-learning communities ask a lot of their students — from completing summer assignments in preparation for the school year, to living and traveling together, to developing a capstone project — Covington acknowledges that the payoffs have been well worth the effort. “If you have a passion for learning and want to make great connections, then a living-learning community is a great way to do that. I haven’t had a more rewarding experience here at Richmond.”