In two years, from 2002-03 to 2004-05, Toledo’s Waite High School climbed three rungs on Ohio’s ladder of school district rankings, rising from the lowest level (academic emergency) to the next-to-highest (effective). Start was the only other Toledo high school at that level last year.
At the same time, Waite’s “feeder” school, East Toledo Junior High, along with Start’s partner, DeVeaux Junior High, earned the highest marks from the state among the city’s junior highs, which were ranked for the first time in 2004-05.
Helping East Toledo reach the “continuous improvement” designation—the middle of five levels on the Ohio Report Card—were significant increases in the number of students passing grade-level classes, up by 36 percent at the seventh-grade level and 34 percent at the eighth-grade level.
The improvement in success indicators at Waite and East Toledo has coincided with their students’ exposure to GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a federally funded program aimed at increasing the number of at-risk students attending college. But the program’s directors at BGSU think it’s more than a coincidence.
“We can’t claim GEAR UP was the only factor, but it certainly was a major factor,” said Dr. William Armaline, co-director of the program with Dr. Kathleen Farber. “We’re beginning to see the fruits of junior high and high school labor.”
The first East Toledo seventh-graders who were part of GEAR UP in 2000 are now seniors at Waite. A new group of seventh-graders has been added each year, funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant of about $6.2 million to BGSU in conjunction with the schools, parents, community agencies and businesses. That grant was part of a larger award of roughly $19.2 million to the Midwest Educational Reform Consortium, which, in addition to BGSU, included Western Michigan University and the University of Illinois-Chicago.
A new federal grant gives Bowling Green another $4 million-plus over six years, starting with current sixth- and seventh-graders on Toledo’s east side. GEAR UP partners celebrated the new grant and the program’s success at an Oct. 26 event at Waite.
“We were pretty surprised we were seeing results as quickly as we did,” Armaline admitted, calling the improvements a tribute to teachers at the schools and to other BGSU faculty involved with GEAR UP.
Other University participants are Drs. Nancy Patterson and John Fischer, teaching and learning; Dr. Arthur Samel, geography; Chris MacDonald, who serves as the project manager; Amanda Vrooman, office manager, and Beth Watters, who handles the budget and accounting.
GEAR UP is based on three components: school restructuring, professional development of staff and direct services to students and families.
Armaline said the program has aimed to restructure the East Toledo schools as smaller, more intimate learning communities where students can interact more meaningfully with adults.
And, because junior high and high school teachers can be isolated, with little time to talk across disciplines, the program has tried to get teachers working together and with smaller groups of students for more time. Doing so means working in a new climate, he pointed out, and that’s where professional development comes in. Teachers and administrators have learned about the restructuring efforts and provided input on how best to make changes in their buildings, Armaline said.
Implementing the strategies has made a difference at Waite, agreed Principal David Yenrick and Becky Schardt, teacher coordinator of the program at the high school.
“It’s forced us to look at what we’ve been doing” and to work more collaboratively, said Yenrick. He attributed the school’s improved performance to “a combination of everything,” including efforts to increase collaboration among teachers, and said a focus now is on changing a longstanding mentality that students will go directly into the workforce after graduation. “We want them to look further (into education) beyond high school,” he said.
Schardt added that GEAR UP includes “a lot of positive aspects, and we’re beginning to see the value of them.”
In addition to a say in the restructuring process, the program “offered our teachers an opportunity to receive college credit at no cost,” she noted. And, while work remains to be done, they’re getting to know their students better through “clustering” of smaller groups of students with several teachers.
Restructuring and professional development have also gone hand in hand through GEAR UP at East Toledo Junior High, according to Deb Condon, the teacher coordinator there.
Staff members had the option of buying into the program and then choosing their own clusters of co-workers. “People picked the people they wanted to work with,” Condon said. “In the end, the kids benefit.”
“ Professional development has been almost entirely teacher driven, and that’s a big plus,” she continued. “And now, we are to the point that when the teachers see a need in the building, they research it. What GEAR UP has done has opened up the teachers’ minds to exploring new ways to reach the kids.”
Condon cited the student services component of the program as well, pointing out efforts to get junior high students thinking about college and initiatives such as Math Quest, aimed at helping students who are on the borderline of passing the state proficiency test.
Students have access to a number of similar tutoring, mentoring and summer enrichment programs. Meanwhile, sessions about such topics as college admissions and financial aid have been available to parents, often in the evening or on weekends in an attempt to increase parental involvement.
Parents are buying into the financial aid aspect of GEAR UP, Armaline said. Some grant dollars will go with students to their chosen college or university, and BGSU has committed financial aid to the point that GEAR UP students who attend Bowling Green could have most of their tuition paid, he said.
“Our argument is you need to do all of these things,” Armaline added, referring to the program’s restructuring, professional development and service components.
GEAR UP is “very much a data-driven project,” he noted, and at Waite, the numbers also include increases in attendance rates and the number of students taking advanced courses.
“It’s high profile and it’s high impact,” said Armaline, who also directs BGSU’s Center for Innovative and Transformative Education. “It’s making a difference in kids’ lives.”
For the participating universities, now BGSU and Western Michigan, the program is also proof that doing their work with outside communities can be mutually beneficial, he maintained. “Universities can achieve their scholarly purposes in ways that actually benefit communities.”