In the News

A little after 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, 11-year-old Madison Welcher could have been at home. Instead she was at Chase Middle School.

The sixth-grader was compiling and annotating an anthology of 40 poems on her school-issued laptop for reading class.

“I need to get my work done and when I’m home, I get distracted,” Welcher said when asked why she was there. “And also, I need points to go on the field trip.”

Nearby, 13-year-old Montez Simmons worked on an assignment for science class — an illustration of African savanna ecosystems for which the deadline was rapidly approaching.

“I’m doing this so I can get it done,” the seventh-grader said. “Monday’s our last day.”

Welcher and Simmons are among the scores of Chase students who have been staying after school or coming in on the weekends for extra academic time, one-on-one guidance from teachers and a variety of other activities meant to motivate kids to attend. Those activities range from playing soccer with the Washburn University women’s soccer team to taking field trips that require first earning points for good behavior, good grades, Saturday attendance or other actions.

This extra school time — called Chase Academy — is funded with a federal Gear Up grant that flows through The University of Kansas.

For principal Keith Jones, the grant is a chance to increase academic rigor at his school. He doesn’t see demographic hurdles — nine in 10 Chase students come from low-income families — as a reason students can’t excel. Instead, he sees this as a reason to provide additional academic resources.

“KU has allowed me to create space to raise expectations for kids,” said Jones, who joined Chase Middle School this school year and was previously assistant principal of Free State High School in Lawrence.

According to the Kansas State Department of Education, one-tenth of Chase students tested on track last year to be ready for college-level math and reading by the time they graduate high school. Across USD 501, the figure was one-fifth. Statewide it was one-third.

The Gear Up grant pays for a small crew of teachers to work after school twice a week and on Saturdays, and for buses that take students home from the after-school sessions and to and from school on Saturdays.

It serves hundreds of students at Chase and Eisenhower middle schools in Topeka Unified School District 501. The two schools use the funding somewhat differently, but in both cases, the funding is tied to their current seventh- and eighth-grade classes — nearly 800 students total — and will follow them as they progress through middle and high school. The goal of federal Gear Up grants is to boost college-going rates in low-income areas through academic support and mentoring, and by attracting students with fun and inspiring activities and exposure to post-secondary options.

“That is the total student,” says Tonya Waller, director of KU’s Gear Up project with USD 501. “You’ve got the kid that’s engaged, the kid that wants to go to college, and the kid that wants to do well in high school to get to college.”

There are many working parts to the program. Gear Up has been paying for tutors to help out during the school day and for a robotics club, for example. In June, 50 Chase and Eisenhower students will spend a week at Emporia State University free of cost, staying in a dorm and taking leadership classes.

The wide range of academic supports and activities is part of a strategy to engage and serve as many children as possible within the seventh and eighth-grade cohorts. Often the initiatives benefit kids outside of those cohorts, too, such as the sixth-graders who attend Chase Academy.

KU Gear Up also seeks to enable changes that schools can keep long-term. Jones plans to keep operating the Chase Academy, for example, even after the Gear Up grant shifts from his school to Highland Park High School. He wants students to develop stronger study habits to help them adjust better to high school.

“That’s a skill set you can take with you,” he said.

Ramiro Hermosillo, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, said he believes the extra hours students are spending in school promote better student-teacher relationships. This impacts the school day by helping kids understand their teachers respect and care about them.

“It helps in the classroom,” Hermosillo said. “They know I’m on their side.”

Source: Topeka Capital Journal