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Ramp Up to Readiness Grant - College 4 - U

In March 2010, the University of Minnesota Rochester submitted a grant proposal to the University of Minnesota's College Readiness Consortium. Those UMR colleagues who worked with me on the proposal (and subsequent implementation) are Jade Bakke, Jenny Heglund, Cindy Lehmkuhle, and Holly Renn. As stated in that document, our short-term goal was to impart to Rochester middle-school students with no family experience in higher education an understanding of, and interest in, a college/university education. In the longer term, we wanted them to embrace the notion that they would certainly go to college; the only uncertainty would be which school to attend.

Historically, children from households with no college experience lack accurate information about higher education, have few mentors to encourage them to pursue a college education, and assume that they can't possibly afford it. Not surprisingly, these students apply to colleges in small numbers and, when accepted, have more difficulty graduating. It is these students, historically underrepresented in our nation's colleges and universities, who we hoped to assist.
It was our belief, supported by research, that middle school is a critical time to begin instilling the notion that college is the key to a successful future (in the event - inconceivable to many early adolescents - that they won't make millions as rock stars and pro athletes). Accordingly, we decided to focus our efforts, and this grant, on middle schoolers whose family members had not attended higher-education institutions.
We presented an outline of our grant proposal to ISD 535's superintendent and his senior leadership group. They encouraged us to move forward and recommended that, should we receive the grant, we work with John Adams, one of Rochester's four middle schools. John Adams Middle School (JAMS) educates approximately 1100 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders; 29% are students of color and 34% receive free/reduced-cost lunches. These percentages are similar to those across the district's entire middle-school population.

After the grant was awarded, a questionnaire prepared and administered to all JAMS seventh graders (approximately 400) by their school counselors identified 70 students whose parents/guardians/siblings had not attended higher-education institutions. From that group of 70, 45 were selected at random and formally invited to participate in our grant project; the 40 students who (with parental permission) accepted our invitation, became our cohort.
Early in the planning process, we decided to involve UMR students as mentors. Their response was quite enthusiastic, their orientation went very well, and (decked out in their yellow "UMR Mentor" t-shirts) they immediately established themselves as an essential element in our interaction with the JAMS students.
The first meeting of the cohort took place at JAMS in May 2010; nine more meetings, each approximately 90 minutes in length, were held in June, September, October, November, and December; at least two more will be held this spring. Four of the meetings were held at UMR, including one session in our biology lab where the students donned white lab coats and did experiments with one of our profs involving banana DNA. Pizza was served on those days when we met during their lunch period(s); cookies became a standard treat at every meeting.
Recognizing the short attention span of most middle schoolers, each 90-minute session was divided into several activities. A variety of learning approaches was employed to: introduce the concept of college; explain the positive impact of a college education on their economic future; emphasize that college is a very realistic goal and that middle school is the time to start planning; dispel rumors about the impossible burden of paying for college; explain what credentials colleges are looking for; suggest high school courses they should register for as eighth graders, and beyond; demystify the college application process; propose strategies for studying effectively; and highlight the importance of utilizing on-line research resources.
To illustrate the point that success at any endeavor requires many hours of work, each student in our cohort was given a notebook and asked to keep a time log of all daily activities that related to their college preparation (time in class, homework, research projects, extra-curriculars, etc.). Continued use of the log, especially through high school, was repeatedly encouraged.
At the first meeting in September, the students (now eighth graders) were given maroon "College 4 - U" t-shirts, then divided into teams of four or five; typically, two UMR mentors worked with each team. Lists of higher education institutions within a day's drive of Rochester were compiled: public, private, large, small, four-year, and two-year. Each team chose a school and was assigned the task of conducting research about it, including: location, size, entrance requirements, cost, scholarship opportunities, available majors, and careers these majors can lead to. Throughout the fall, the teams did their research and created posters that included the information they were gathering. At our December 16 meeting, each of the nine teams gave an oral presentation about their school (UW-Madison, U of North Dakota, U of Northern Iowa, UW-LaCrosse, Bethel U, St. Mary's U, Winona State U, UW-River Falls, Riverland CC). The students then received individualized certificates of completion and UMR backsacks. The local ABC-TV affiliate filmed portions of that session for the evening news.
Because of the vital importance of parental involvement in the college-readiness process, we emphasized that point at an evening meeting with the cohort members' parents and guardians in December; the students were invited to accompany the adults, and pizza was served. A presentation on the cost of a college education, and the many ways of paying for it, was followed by a lengthy and, we believe, helpful Q/A period.
In February, we will again meet with the cohort and administer the same questionnaire that the students first saw in May 2010. With the help of Amy Carstensen, the JAMS counselor who worked closely with us throughout this project, we will review our cohort students' course-selection sheets, and then compare their course choices to those of the (approximately) 30 students not included in the cohort. If our students choose the rigorous courses we urged them to select at a significantly higher percentage than the control group students, perhaps can point to our project as one significant factor.

Follow Up
It is also our expectation that the students who have participated in the "College 4 - U" project will, during the next four years: continue to gain an appreciation of the value of higher education; regularly ask themselves what impact each of their academic choices will have on their ability to get into college and succeed there; develop a strategy for gaining admission to a college or university of their choice; become familiar with the tools required to initiate that strategy; and increase their awareness of the resources available for meeting the financial costs of a higher-education degree. The long-term impact upon the students in this cohort will be seen in the fall of 2015 when, hopefully, they will enter higher-education institutions.
UMR's admission's department will take lessons from this project and, where possible, apply them to its recruiting efforts. The JAMS leadership group may be able to apply the activities we initiated this year to similar efforts in the future, and other Rochester middle schools might decide to adopt some of its features. The initial group of UMR student mentors who worked with this cohort might decide that a worthwhile outreach project would be to continue mentoring them as they move on to high school (several are hoping to become math tutors in the Rochester high schools this spring). And, other UMR students might decide to become involved in similar activities.

Joseph Marchesani
Program Director, Regional Alliances
University of Minnesota Rochester

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