In the News

CHARLOTTESVILLE — As the bus climbed Ivy Road, the eighth-graders on board pulled out phones, their eyes and cameras glued to the campus coming into sight.
Over the speakers, a teacher explained how at the University of Virginia, students call the campus “the Grounds.” As the bus wove through it all, the teacher pointed out the football stadium, the dorms and the students, walking to class with backpacks slung over shoulders.

“That’s what we want you to do,” Jeff Williams told students.

It is a message that Williams and others have been repeating, over and over, to students at Lucy Addison Middle School.

National trends predict students like those at Addison — where almost 90 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch last year — are less likely to graduate from high school or enroll at either two- or four-year colleges.

Teachers and administrators want to buck those statistics.

At Addison, and at Roanoke’s four other middle schools, school leaders hope the conversations they’re having now, early on, will inspire students. They hope the extra tutoring after school and during the summer will prepare students. That scholarships and financial aid will make it possible.

Mostly though, they hope that when students set foot on a college campus and see a student who graduated first from Addison and then from William Fleming High School, they will see a path that they can, and will want to, follow themselves.

This strategy forms the basis of a new program that Roanoke middle schools implemented toward the end of the last school year called GEAR UP. The catchy acronym stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, and it will follow participating students through the end of their first year of college.

In Roanoke, school leaders believe the program, which is possible because of a federal grant, will be a game-changer.

“The exposure just to that college environment makes a huge difference in a kid’s decision to go to college, or not,” said Hayley Poland, the district’s director of school counseling. “They can hang on to that experience.”

The strategy has paid off elsewhere.

In a study that looked at New York, students who participated in a GEAR UP program offered through the City College of New York had higher grades and better attendance than their peers who did not participate. They were also more likely to graduate, with 71 percent of the GEAR UP students on track to do so, compared with a citywide graduation rate of 54 percent over the same time period.

A similar study that looked at students in Texas found that GEAR UP students were more knowledgeable about college and had higher expectations for college than their peers who weren’t participating.

Here in Virginia, Lynchburg schools’ first group of GEAR UP students graduated in 2012. That group’s graduation rate did increase, said Ethel Reeves, Lynchburg’s director of engagement, equity and opportunity.

The bigger impact though, was just in students’ confidence levels and engagement with school, said Reeves, who took the post when the group of students were juniors in high school. The activities and programs resonated with students, she said.

“What we found though was that when children were involved in something, that whole sense of belonging was where we saw success,” she said. “Students fit in, and they believed they were a part of something. So they were accountable.”

This is Roanoke’s first cohort of students to go through the program, which since 1998 has targeted high-poverty schools nationwide and in Virginia students tend to be under-represented on college campuses. So under-represented that on the field trip to UVa, where black students make up 6.1 percent of the undergraduate population, black fourth-year student Martese Johnson stopped to tell the Addison group that he was “really happy to see so many minority faces at the university, so I had to stop by and see who you guys were.”

GEAR UP programs differ from state to state and even school to school but operate with a common goal: to motivate students to consider college who might not otherwise, and then help them succeed once they arrive on campus.

“We’re careful to stick to the purpose of the grant, which is really to make more equal opportunities for low-income students,” who may not have the support and advantages that their peers from middle- and higher-income families have, Reeves said.

In Virginia, the State Council of Higher Education oversees the grant and the distribution of $22.4 million earmarked for the program statewide. Along with Roanoke’s five middle schools, 24 others across the state were chosen to participate in this round of funding — including about 6,000 students in all. Lynchburg’s three middle schools are part of that group, participating again with another group of students.

The students, who are in eighth grade now, are set to graduate from high school in 2020. When they graduate, they’ll be eligible for a one-year scholarship equivalent to the amount of a Pell grant, regardless of whether they qualify for the need-based aid financially.

The district as a whole qualified based on its overall student need, but any of the approximately 900 students who were in seventh grade in a Roanoke school last year are eligible to participate, even if they don’t come from a low-income family themselves.

Principals in Roanoke are taking the lead to tailor the program to their own schools’ needs, Poland said.

“They’re really taking ownership in their buildings, and the principals have been great about saying, ‘This is what I need in my building. How can we make this work?’ ” Poland said. “We’re just making it work for all of the kids.”

Roanoke schools are trying a variety of strategies designed, like the program in Lynchburg, to engage students. The grant will enable schools to offer extra tutoring and remediation to students who are struggling with a particular concept.

Some of that tutoring might be one-on-one with a teacher after school. Some of it might be in groups with a peer. Some of it might be addressed through technology, with the laptops that every eighth-grader is provided.

The grant also will allow the district to ramp up the counseling it’s able to offer students, many of whom have experienced various forms of childhood trauma that can affect their ability to perform well in school.

Roanoke is also looking at ways to provide students with mentors. Sometimes students want someone they know from within the school to serve as a mentor, but other times they want to connect with someone outside the school, like a successful community member or a recent graduate who is close in age, Poland said.

In Roanoke, and at other participating school districts, much of the work is just focused on convincing students that they can go to college. Schools have to change students’ perceptions about college and also about their own abilities, Reeves said.

“They’ve been told some negative things, and they’ve held on to those negative things,” she said. “Like that they cannot do, or that based on where they live, or their prior failures, that they could not achieve. We’re breaking down some of those walls.”

Most schools already practice many of these strategies, but the funding from the grant will allow those in Roanoke to expand their efforts.

Robert Johnson, who took over as principal at Addison in 2006, said that school in particular has a long history of building a nurturing and encouraging environment for students, dating to when it was the city’s only high school for black students. Johnson sees it as his responsibility to continue that tradition.

“I feel like it’s our duty to carry that on,” said Johnson, who is a Roanoke graduate who benefited from a college preparatory program that was geared toward encouraging minority students to enter the teaching field.

Johnson said he stresses to students how an education “is like an umbilical cord to a good life.” He wants students to consider all of their options, whether it’s learning a technical skill and going straight to work in a trade after graduation or joining the military, or going to college.

“We’d like for them to go to college of course, but we just want to push them to graduate from high school and be great citizens, as well as use their education for their benefit,” he said.

Johnson keeps in close contact with Addison students even after they go on to high school and beyond, and when the group toured UVa, he arranged for them to meet with Addison alums such as Jamel Hale, who graduated from Fleming in May.

“The opportunities that college presents you — you can’t imagine,” Hale told the Addison students. “College is great.”

The college visits make up only a small part of GEAR UP programs, but they make an impression on students. Even as the Addison students toured the campus in Charlottesville, many were talking among themselves about how the college compared with James Madison University, which students toured last year.

At UVa, the group was led around by undergrads, who told the Addison students about Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the school and UVa’s history of student self-governance.

Conor Mettenburg, a fourth-year UVa student and one of the tour guides, even let students take a peek in his room on the Lawn, apologizing for the mess as they entered in groups of two and three.

Throughout the tour, students peppered Mettenburg and the other tour guides with questions — more questions than most high school groups ask, Mettenburg told them.

No, you don’t have to have a job, but many students do. Yes, college is “freakishly expensive,” but scholarships, grants and loans can make it more affordable. Yes, your grades in high school matter. Yes, you have flexibility over your schedule, but it’s your responsibility to manage your time.

“If you keep missing classes, it’s going to impact you negatively, but not because someone’s going to scold you or send you to see your adviser or the principal,” Mettenburg told students. “It’s going to reflect on your grade, which is going to determine how well you do at the university. There’s not a lot of strict rules, which is a good and a bad thing.”

Getting these kinds of questions answered, and getting to see the campus at UVa was “pretty amazing,” said Skyler Keil, 13, after talking with Mettenburg, a Naval ROTC student is considering a similar path.

“I like the thought of getting an education and being able to possibly change something in life, or be something in life,” Keil said.

Source: Roanoke Times