Raechel “Rae” Anderson, a 2015 graduate of Ball State University’s Teachers College in Elementary Education, credits the Schools Within the Context of Community program (SCC) for providing the foundation for her teaching philosophies and deepening her love of the profession.

But, over time, Ms. Anderson learned the SCC program would become the foundation of something even more meaningful—as an unexpected pathway to becoming a mother to Emma.

Preparing for a Fulfilling Career

SCC is an immersive teacher preparation program that places students for an entire semester in the classroom, usually during their junior year, or sometimes even their sophomore year. This is earlier than when most pre-service teachers enter the classroom for the first time at other institutions.

As part of the program, which has won 10 national awards, students also work with community mentors to better understand their role in the community and learn about neighborhoods and the families who reside there. These immersive experiences help pre-service teachers gain experience in diverse communities and assist them in becoming more culturally responsive teachers.

Dr. Pat Clark, former chairperson of the Department of Elementary Education and professor emeritus in the Department of Early Childhood, Youth, and Family Studies, together with Dr. Eva Zygmunt, Ph.D. ’03, professor of early childhood, youth, and family studies, literally wrote the book on this program.

“One of the goals of the SCC program is to ensure that future teachers grasp the imperative of appreciating the strengths, knowledge, and values of the communities they serve,” Dr. Clark said. “This preparation propels our students to be excellent teachers who can truly reach and connect with students and families.”

“It seems like a no-brainer, and it is often written about in theory, but there are only a few places around the country doing this in practice,” Dr. Zygmunt added.

But the program is not only immersive, it’s intensive.

“It’s a hard semester,” Dr. Zygmunt said. “It’s only 16 weeks, but they’re in that community all day, every day, learning a lot and unlearning a lot.

“It’s full-blown immersion and an experience they’ve never had before. But there’s also lots of laughter, and it’s so rewarding for everyone.”

Asked about Ms. Anderson’s participation in the program, Dr. Zygmunt said: “Rae was a bright light and brought a special energy to that cohort.”

When One Door Closes, Another Opens

Upon graduation, Ms. Anderson stayed on as a substitute teacher at Rhoades Elementary in Indianapolis—where she had student-taught her senior year. She loved the school and the community, but after graduation, she was disappointed that she hadn’t secured a permanent placement as she’d expected.

She didn’t know then that this delay would lead her to the perfect opportunity.

She was covering for several maternity leaves that year and becoming very proficient in the classroom—one placement, for nearly six months, was in a kindergarten classroom.

Shortly after, the retirement of a Rhoades Elementary kindergarten teacher paved the way for Ms. Anderson to step into that role. And, staying at Rhoades as a kindergarten teacher, she would be exactly where she needed to be for Emma.

A Difficult Path

Emma had never attended school when she started kindergarten in November 2020. Difficult circumstances led to the child being shuffled among several foster homes and family members, with no real consistent home-life structure. Ms. Anderson was apprehensive about a brand-new student starting so late in the year, but even with Emma’s rough start, she was on par with other students in her class. Unfortunately, still very much in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, things would get shuffled again.

Just a couple of weeks later, Central Indiana schools faced a second shutdown. Teachers had to pivot once again and keep their students from falling behind. Ms. Anderson taught remotely but also visited students to bring them various school supplies like whiteboard markers when needed. She would bring students treats and visit with families—keeping lines of communication open and making sure educational needs were being met.

To Ms. Anderson, going the extra mile was just second nature, but it was also a testament to how Ball State prepares its students.

“The SCC program helped me realize that teaching a child is so much more than what I do in the classroom,” she said. “It is also understanding who the students are and valuing where they come from. Dr. Eva Zygmunt and Dr. Pat Clark were instrumental in this discovery, and I am forever grateful for the foundations they taught me.”

At the time, Emma was happy and excited to be in school and was thriving in Ms. Anderson’s class. In February 2021, schools reopened, and everything seemed to be gradually returning to normal. However, soon after, Emma learned she was going to be moved to a new foster home—and a new school.

Learning this toward the end of the school day, Ms. Anderson didn’t have time to prepare. She gave Emma a school picture with a note scribbled on the back indicating how brave she thought Emma was, and that she loved her.

Ms. Anderson was heartbroken. She wanted so much for Emma to have a safe and stable environment. Working on instinct, Ms. Anderson ran down to the school nurse’s office to retrieve the phone number for Emma’s caseworker.

“I wanted to see if there was any chance that I could foster her,” Ms. Anderson said. “I hadn’t discussed it with my husband or anything. Emma was just getting started in school and was really successful here. I wanted some stability for her, and it was just a gut reaction.”

Ms. Anderson’s husband, Mike, naturally had some initial reservations about the two of them seeking custody of Emma, as he hadn’t known the kindergartner as his wife had. However, taking custody of Emma wasn’t an option at that time since the Andersons were not related to Emma and were not licensed foster parents. So, the child was placed in another foster home.

After a few months, Emma was still missing her favorite teacher, Ms. Anderson, and couldn’t stop talking about her. In March 2021, Emma’s foster mother successfully contacted Ms. Anderson. They agreed that monthly virtual chats would help Emma adjust and that seeing a familiar face might ease some of the child’s anxiety.

Becoming a Family

Emma Anderson Adoption Day

On adoption day, the courtroom was packed with around 50 people—family, friends, church family, and co-workers were in attendance showing support for this new family.

Ultimately, that new home placement didn’t work for Emma. Now, Ms. Anderson’s idea to foster Emma was back on the table. It was a huge decision. This time, the Andersons didn’t make a snap decision. They took some time to mull it over, later deciding to visit Emma multiple times so that Mr. Anderson could get to know the child.

After a few visits, Mr. Anderson discovered that he had clicked with Emma just as his wife had, and the Andersons realized it was meant to be. Without other options for Emma, Ms. Anderson qualified to be a foster through their kinship—an existing relationship with the child as her former teacher. Without family members to take her in, that kinship made it possible for the Andersons to become her foster parents.

Mike, Rae, and Emma Anderson on Emma's adoption day

Mike, Rae, and Emma Anderson

“I’ll never forget it,” said Ms. Anderson. “It was June 27, 2021, and she was just sitting there on the porch with her suitcase and all her belongings ready to go, wearing the biggest smile. When she walked into our house, the very first thing she said was, ‘This feels like home.’

“It was like out of a storybook. It just felt right.”

Adopting hadn’t been the plan. The Andersons wanted Emma to have a stable, loving environment until she could find another placement or go back with family. However, as months became years, the bonds became even stronger, and the idea of the Andersons adopting Emma and forming a permanent family together made sense.

This week, on Feb. 22, the Andersons celebrate one year of being a complete family with Emma.

“This past Summer, we walked around Ball State together,” Ms. Anderson said. “I have a picture of Emma and I smiling in front of the Teachers College sign. I know in my heart I wouldn’t know my daughter if I hadn’t gone to Ball State. All the decisions you make or the situations that happen to you are all for a purpose—leading to something.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Ms. Anderson continued. “In our case, it was six years’ worth of disappointments, setbacks, twists, and turns, but all of it led us to be in the right place at the right time. And of all life’s blessings, she’s the biggest one.”

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