WMU News

$14 million federal grant aids middle school students

Oct. 9, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- More than $14 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education will come to Western Michigan University over the next five years to ensure that at-risk students and their teachers make choices as early as middle school that will lead to success in college.

WMU will lead a national three-university team that will work with school districts in three states, ranging from small rural districts to those located in large urban areas. Locally, Battle Creek Public Schools and Bangor Public Schools will be deeply involved in the effort.

President Bill Clinton announced at the White House Sept. 12 that WMU's effort is one of 73 projects to receive federal funding through GEAR UP --Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. A total of $45.6 million in grants will fund GEAR UP's second round of awards, supporting projects in 33 states and Puerto Rico and impacting more than 710,000 disadvantaged middle school students.

In announcing the federal grant package in an address on the White House lawn, Clinton said, "GEAR UP is a partnership with low-income kids that says if you'll aim high and aspire to college, we'll help you get there with counseling, mentoring, tutoring and financial aid. It sends a message that with hope, hard work and high hopes -- high expectations -- you can go as far as your abilities will take you."

The WMU-led initiative is being called the Midwest Educational Reform Consortium (MERC), a three-state, integrated and collaborative partnership. It will unite WMU and its Merze Tate Center for Research on School Reform with Bowling Green State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, along with business and community organizations, in a sweeping effort to address the systemic gaps causing severe educational and performance challenges among high-poverty students.

"This wonderful grant is really indicative of how highly Western Michigan University is regarded at the national level," says Western Michigan University President Elson S. Floyd. "Not only does this project recognize our roots and long tradition in the education arena, but it reflects our current status as a nationally recognized student-centered research university that is leading cutting-edge work that impacts the quality of life for people everywhere."

"Our children are our future," Floyd continues. "It is incumbent on us as parents, educators and as a society to make the dream of a college education a very real possibility for all children."

Joining in the effort will be five partner school districts in Southwest Michigan; Toledo, Ohio; and Chicago. The entire Battle Creek Public School System and its five middle schools and high school will participate, along with Bangor High School and Middle School. Those districts will work with WMU. Bowling Green State University and its Center for Innovative and Transformative Education and Partnerships for Community Action will work with East Toledo Junior High School and Waite High School, while the University of Illinois at Chicago and its Small Schools Workshop will partner with Harvey-Dixmoor Public Schools.

MERC is the only GEAR UP project this year in Michigan, says Joseph Kretovics, WMU professor of teaching, learning and leadership and director of the WMU-led effort. It is also one of the largest in the nation partnering with multiple communities, school districts and universities.

Kretovics hopes that MERC could grow even further and extend beyond the Southwest Michigan, Northern Illinois and Northern Ohio areas to encompass other parts of the Midwest. Coordinators will be asking several foundations for additional funding for scholarships and tutoring for students and professional development for teachers.

"This is a unique opportunity to have an impact in what has been called the 'Rust Belt,' because we're really looking across the old industrial corridor," Kretovics says. "We hope to be able to expand this consortium to include other university-public school-community partnerships in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. So we're really looking at the whole Great Lakes, Rust Belt corridor to get people working together to try to come up with some creative ideas to help improve both schools and teacher preparation programs."

Drawing from the experience of several highly successful and nationally recognized school reform projects, MERC will establish GEAR UP Learning Centers that will integrate those successful projects with the needs of individual schools, social service agencies and families in the communities they will serve.

"The proposed GEAR UP Learning Centers are not prescriptive, cookie-cutter approaches to school reform," Kretovics says. "Instead, MERC has developed a performance-based process that is broadly adaptive to the unique needs of individual schools and their communities."

First-year funding for MERC is $1,024,621. Funding will increase in each of the next four years and will total more than $14 million over all five years. GEAR UP projects in most other states are not as broad as the WMU initiative in that most of them involve one middle school and one college or university.

The idea behind GEAR UP is to encourage early planning for college. Through intensive partnership intervention, WMU's project seeks to increase student achievement, on-time graduation rates and the percent of students attending and completing post-secondary education.

MERC project coordinators also hope to engender sustainable improvement of the educational delivery system, student learning and achievement, and family and community involvement in the educational system.

The project will start with sixth- and seventh-grade students the first year, then add grade levels in subsequent years as it follows first-year students through their high school careers. Kretovics says pieces of the educational plan will be put in place in the next few weeks and the project will be in full swing sometime after Jan. 1.

Kretovics emphasizes that MERC will be tailored to the individual school district and dovetail with existing school improvement efforts that are already in place.

"Each school district has strengths and each school district has areas for improvement," Kretovics says. "What we want to do is work with those districts and with those individual schools and craft a program that builds on the strengths of that particular school and addresses the issues that that school has.

"We're not coming in to do something to the schools," Kretovics continues. "They've already begun to make some very significant changes. We're basically augmenting and helping to accelerate the change process in those schools."

Working together in a multi-state consortium will maximize resources and avoid unnecessary duplication, Kretovics says. It also will offer a multi-dimensional approach to transforming low-achieving, high-poverty schools into high-achieving, self-sustaining learning centers.

"What we've tried to do," Kretovics says, "is garner the resources of three major institutions of higher education, five school districts, the business community, community organizations, social services and museums so that we all don't have to reinvent the wheel. We can all learn from each other and we can all share our strengths and build on all of our strengths in a kind of exchange-of-services model."

The effort is needed to help reverse the alarming dropout rates of underprivileged students and boost the number that ultimately go on to college, Kretovics says. The dropout rate at some MERC schools is as high as 60 percent, and of those students who stay in school, only 20 percent go on to college.

MERC will make sure the essential building blocks needed for students to successfully start college are in place, then it's up to the student to decide whether or not to enter college. Program graduates may attend partner universities at in-state tuition rates and will be eligible for scholarships. For students who decide not to enter college, those essential building blocks still will be there in case they later change their minds.

The project also will show that underprivileged kids can learn at high levels.

"MERC believes and intends to demonstrate that with a small, temporary influx of additional per pupil expenditure, in combination with a clearly focused school-university-community -partnership, children of poverty can achieve the same levels of high academic performance historically limited to their more advantaged peers," Kretovics says.

Kretovics says that MERC is being led by the College of Education, but many other University colleges and departments are also involved, including English, engineering, financial aid, Division of Multi-Cultural Affairs and admissions.

"This is truly not just the College of Education," Kretovics says. "This is a University-wide project."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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