By Casey Hans
“ … I am a Rising Scholar. I can do anything I put my mind to once I put my mind to it …”
Freshmen in Brandon Jackson’s Rising Scholars leadership class at Huron High School start their hour with this affirmation, something Jackson continues to reinforce during the class and out into the hallways.
“Introduce yourself,” he encourages students who put a hand out to a visitor. They all smile, make eye contact, offer their name and note their “Rising Scholar” status. Some handshakes are firm, some not.
But Jackson says that comes in time, as students build their self-confidence.
The introductions are embedded in the culture of a two-year-old district program that encourages enrollment in advanced and accelerated classes and puts students on track to attend top colleges and universities.
Now in its second year, the program has 167 high-level courses being taken by Rising Scholars at the district’s three comprehensive high schools: Pioneer, Huron and Skyline.
Program takes off, rises in 2009-10
Ann Arbor Public Schools staff approached the then-fledgling University of Michigan Center for Educational Outreach to suggest a pilot partnership for 2009-10. About 47 families around the district showed an interest.
In its second year, 120 Ann Arbor high school students proudly call themselves Rising Scholars.
Ninth-graders are invited into the Rising Scholars program as they leave eighth-grade and prepare to enter high school. It is offered to economically disadvantaged and underserved students who, through grade point averages and test scores, have shown academic promise.
Although many of the Rising Scholars are students of ethnic minorities, there is a mix of cultures and genders in the program. One aim of the program is to decrease the achievement gap – which shows lower achievement among African American and Hispanic students – as students improve their grades, said Victor Kennerly, a Pioneer High School counselor and district coordinator for Rising Scholars.
He said U-M provides student mentors who meet one-on-one with the scholars, encouraging them to keep their grades up, take challenging courses and prepare for a college career.
Kennerly said keeping the students in a group, or cohort, of their peers will carry them through their high school years with support. “They feel like they belong,” he said.
Claudia Siewert, counselor and coordinator for the Skyline Rising Scholars, said the program makes a difference. “They are academically above grade level,” she explained. “They are students who are bright, but some are choosing non-challenging courses. We work with them to maintain good grades … and take those more challenging courses.”
The Rising Scholars program “is going to change lives,” added Huron math teacher Amy Furey. “It was amazing the maturity level of the sophomores coming into class this year. They were there and they wanted to learn. It means the program is working.”
Rising Scholars one of 1st programs for U-M center
U-M’s Center for Educational Opportunities Assistant Director Amy Prevo has worked with the Ann Arbor program since its inception.
“Rising Scholars is one of the first projects we’ve worked with and we’re very pleased to be a partner in it,” she said. “The partnership is going very well. It’s nice that it’s right in our back yard.”
Rising Scholars is one of several programs the CEO works with throughout the state to ensure academic excellence in K-12 schools so that students achieve and move on to higher education. The initiatives have a social justice flavor and focus on students who are underrepresented and have potential, Prevo said.
“There is a population of students that really doesn’t have that support system,” Prevo explained. “The more educational opportunities students have … the more rigorous coursework they have, will better prepare them to attend college.”
Michael Turner, outreach coordinator for U-M CEO, invites students to events on campus and in the community that will encourage them to consider careers and furthering their education. Overnight stays on the U-M campus are one way that the CEO offers a taste of college to Ann Arbor’s Rising Scholars, who visit the campus during the school year and summer.
“It makes it very real for them. They can touch, taste and see it,” he said. “It creates a cultural awareness for them so that they can see themselves here (on campus) as well.”
Turner said not only are students in Ann Arbor impacted, but also those at U-M. “Every mentor and tutor, as they do this work, give me feedback about it and how can they do this as a career,” he said. “When this type of work gets them excited about education, that’s a good thing.”
On Jan. 29, U-M CEO will host a Rising Scholars end-of-semester event that will involve the students and their parents, continuing to build the partnership.
At Skyline, scholars blend into school culture
There are 50 Rising Scholars at Skyline this year and Siewert said staff wanted it to blend into the overall program at Skyline when it was introduced.
Skyline students are is Small Learning Communities already, sort of a learning neighborhood, so Rising Scholars there do not have a specific class. They meet individually with Siewert weekly to set goals for improvement. “I like the check-in piece, dipping in and checking their grades,” Siewert said.
Like Rising Scholars at other schools, Skyline’s scholars work together, helping each other with homework and lending peer support.
Waleed Al-Doais, a sophomore, said being a Rising Scholar has impressed upon him the importance of good study habits. “I think it helps you to be aware of what studying and homework are,” he said “You’re more aware of what you need.”
Students said mentors who spend on-on-one time with students reinforce why students need to study and what they need to do to stay on track. “The benefit of having a mentor is they’re more down on your level,” noted sophomore Alex Wilks. “We really bond with them.”
Not all Skyline freshmen have had the mentor experience yet – the hope is that more U-M mentors will join the program second semester. But they are still benefiting from being a Rising Scholar, Siewert said. Students said the have developed better one-on-one relationships with their teachers.
Freshman Danielle Thesinger said she appreciates the program. “For me, it’s been pretty great,” she said. “It’s great for keeping me on line with my grades. And colleges will look at what you do right now.”
Classmate Katherine Hepburn said the program has given her the confidence to challenge herself. “I used to think only really smart people could take AP classes,” she said. “After this, I decided I could step it up a level. You get more of an “I can do it’ feeling. You get the encouragement.”
Sophomore Javier Contreras agrees. He said the program has encouraged him and given him the confidence to take tough classes, “to get a challenge, to go beyond. It gave me a hint to go beyond to change myself.”
Huron High School students learn to be leaders
At Huron High, the focus is on the college and career center, where Ivory Wright works with students to introduce them to the center and what it offers, motivate them to understand a college’s expectations and how to get through the admissions process. Jackson said students have homework surrounding the process and also do a research project.
“We know these kids are smart – that’s not the point,” he said. “It’s to get them acclimated to high school and interested in college.”
At Huron, 40 students are Rising Scholars – all monitor their grades with Jackson’s assistance, but many say they check their grades on Power School daily to keep abreast of how they are doing.
“I like it. My favorite part is the studying. It’s good to study together – we know each other well,” said freshman James Blake. “I’m learning more about college now and getting experience on how to do that.”
Natalie Thompson said the school contacted her mom and told her being a Rising Scholar could be good for college opportunities. “We’ve been working on college things,” she said, of her first year. “Now I have more of a plan. And I have friends I met here.“
Kameron Glenn said Rising Scholars “helps us get ready for the future. It suggests the courses we need to take to get there.”
Huron students must dress in business attire each Monday. Jackson said it’s one way to give the Rising Scholars structure and pride. Huron also hosts after-school homework sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays and offers Saturday sessions before finals to encourage good study habits and learning.
Denise Eaddy-Richardson, a counselor who co-coordinates the Huron program with Jackson, said she has seen higher student enthusiasm, reception to instruction and students going above and beyond with Rising Scholars. “Based on these assessment, it is a successful program,” she said.
Sophomore Rising Scholars say they appreciate the opportunity to be in the program. “It gives you a feeling someone’s backing you up and supporting you,” said Pablo Moncada.
Classmate Eahab Abu-Shtayagah said the program has allowed them to “get to know each other – it’s made us feel like a family” and Danielle Marshall said Rising Scholars “is like a club. You have a whole bunch of friends and they’re all in the same boat as you.”
Others said the program has stressed the importance of grades and keeping them up so that they can enroll in advanced classes and earn better opportunities. Sophomore John Harrison recently placed third at the Business Professionals of American regionals and will head for state competition in March. He said before Rising Scholars, that he wouldn’t have had the confidence to participate.
“When I came in, my grades with sub-par,” he explained. “Math was always an obstacle and once I got it down, it started to click. The tutors guided me toward what I needed to know. My first year was dismal – I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. I’m coming back from a lost year.”
Harrison said he plans not only to finish high school and attend college, but wants to come back and tutor younger students.
Pioneers work together, appreciate their adviser
At Pioneer, Rising Scholars have classes scheduled together to enhance their experience. Freshmen are together daily during sixth hour for a leadership class and sophomores meet weekly with adviser Tyrone Weeks to stay on track.
One of the main goals at Pioneer is to have students bond as a group. “In the lunchroom, between bells, you see them together,” Weeks said. “They’re touching base. Checking in with each other.”
Many of the teens said they check their grades daily on Power School and enjoy the camaraderie. Students said they have also appreciated the group settings when they go off campus to events, such as today’s Martin Luther King Day celebration on he U-M campus and when they visited Cass Technical High School in Detroit.
Students say they help each other while keeping confidentiality about their fellow scholars. Others say they have overcome shyness about approaching their teachers and fellow students for help.
Gibaire Hudson said the program boosts students’ expectations. “It helps me with the weaknesses I have, like English, to build those up and keeps me on top of what I’m good at, like math,” he said.
Sheimah Hussein, a freshman, said expectations are higher for students in the program. “The teachers expect more of you because you’re a Rising Scholar,” she said. “They know you should be doing better.”
Billy Cobb-Gully agreed. “They try to push you harder,” he said.
Most of the Rising Scholars said they had aspirations to attend college, but some did not know the route needed to get there. “I always felt it was important for me go to college,” said sophomore Jibreel Hussein, “But Rising Scholars made my need more urgent. It made me want to work harder … so I could get into any college.”
Kennerly said as the first group of Rising Scholars enters their junior year in 2011-12, it will be critical to the program’s progress. That’s a year that the number of accelerated and AP classes should rise significantly and students begin considering their college choices he said.
“It will be a pivotal year,” he said. “We will know whether this thing pans out. Ultimately, our goal is to get the kids into college, into a university like U-M, and get them scholarships.”
U-M’s Turner said the Rising Scholars program is unique compared with other partnerships around the state.
“These students … are getting the attention they need,” he said. “They’re the quiet students that are doing well and just need a little extra encouragement. Rising Scholars prepares them for excellence. It’s the kind of program that should be duplicated in other schools.”
Casey Hans writes and edits this newsletter for the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 734-994-2090.