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Grant aims to ready middle schoolers for what comes after high school

Getting in Gear


In Wyoming, seventh-graders’ mental gears were turning as they considered their futures. MacKenzie Burgess would like to be a marine biologist or a doctor.

Skylar Dornbos wants a career in interior design or as a professional softball player.

Sautianna Bautisa-Chavez sees herself as a poet, singer or NASA scientist.

Martin Martinez wants to be a basketball player.

Nikki Marcano isn’t sure what she wants to pursue for a career, but she wants to learn about many things.

The Wyoming Junior High students all have a general idea what they need to do: work hard in their classes, believe in themselves and focus on their goals. But they all agreed more information would be helpful. “It’s hard to do it on your own,” Skylar said. “If you had some help it would be easier.”

About GEAR UP

  • Works to increase college and career readiness of low-income students nationwide
  • Serves more than 700,00 students in nearly 4,000 schools and 44 states
  • GRCC was the only Michigan college to receive the federal grant this year

Source: Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP)

Lucky for them, no matter what their goals, local educators are joining forces to help students navigate where they want to go. Grand Rapids Community College is the recipient of a $2.1 million, six-year grant from the U.S. Education Department. The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP)  initiative is beginning to take shape, serving Wyoming, Kelloggsville, Godwin Heights and Godfrey-Lee students.

It will include mentoring, tutoring, study skills workshops, college visits, career exploration and summer enrichment programs. Wyoming Junior High recently hosted a parent information night and other districts plan to also host informational events.

While details are still being finalized, GRCC is hiring a program director, success coach, advisor, evaluation consultant and tutor to work with a cohort of 800 seventh-graders in the four districts.

“The hope is (GRCC staff) will follow them all the way up to college or through their 12th grade year,” said Principal Jon Blackburn. “This isn’t just geared at at-risk kids… This is for all kids. It’s getting all kids college-ready.”

Measuring Impact Through Graduation

Dan Clark, GRCC dean of academic outreach, said the seventh-grade cohort will serve as a research group to study the impact of GEAR UP on retention rates, graduation rates and enrollment in post-secondary education. All grant money will stay with the group, the only cohort to receive the GEAR UP funding. Impact on academics will be measured through the years.

Blackburn said he’s excited for what the program brings in the area of career exploration and building awareness of skilled trade opportunities.

Math is a major focus. Students could take math placement tests for a baseline assessment of proficiency. The program will include online and traditional learning opportunities.

Involvement will be optional, including in a summer academy, expected to start this year.

Research says seventh and eighth grades are the grade levels that have the biggest impact in college. “If you have kids who are ready in seventh-and eighth-grades, chances are they will be ready in high school,” Blackburn said.

“This is planting the seed for them to grab ahold of something that they can have some accountability and responsibility to, but have some choice in the matter to,” said Craig Hoekstra, Wyoming Public Schools Superintendent.

Honing Skills for Workforce 
Kelloggsville Middle School Principal James Alston said GRCC will help fund an after-school tutoring program already in place.

He said he’s eager for his students to take part in a comprehensive, wrap-around program that moves them toward post-secondary opportunities of their choice. He’s curious to see results after five years of the program.

“The idea now is to lay that foundation,” Alston said.

Hoekstra said students will benefit by developing math skills and soft skills needed in the workforce like problem-solving, collaboration and critical thinking.

GRCC offers dual-enrollment courses in partnering districts, including the Wyoming Middle College Program at Wyoming High School, through which students can earn an associate’s degree for free.

“For me this advances and expands the relationship and partnership we have with these schools and school district,” Clark said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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