Students attend BCS, GVSU partnership program

BALDWIN — At the end of a school year, students often look forward to relaxing during their summer vacation. However, a group of 11 Baldwin Community Schools students decided to go a different route and continue their education by attending college classes during their summer vacation.

The group was the first cohort to attend the Growing Educators in Math and Science program — or GEMS — which is a newly created program between GVSU and BCS. Its stated purpose is to increase the number of underrepresented groups in the teaching profession and support the development of future teachers, but it also aims to prepare students for college life and coursework.

Open to BCS students in ninth, 10th and 11th grades, the program was created after BCS applied for a federal grant to participate in the Upward Bound program — a college-preparation program. BCS qualified for the program, but funding was only given to applicants with a perfectly scored grant application.

After the funding was denied, the dean of the GVSU College of Education, Dr. Elaine Collins, wanted to find a way to still include BCS in the program.

“I had the opportunity to work with Baldwin before in my professional career and sometimes these decisions (for funding programs), I think, are made for reasons due to size and outreach,” Collins said. “I still think (Baldwin) would benefit from this particular program, so we started it up. We offered the opportunity to participate.”

The college created six scholarships for Baldwin High School students to attend a similar program alongside the Upward Bound students. After hearing of the scholarships being offered, the BCS Board of Education approved to provide funding for an additional six students to participate.

It is GVSU’s hope that the students who attend the program will be introduced to the possibility of becoming an educator, and the university could help them along that path. Although the desire to become an educator is not necessary to participate in the program.

“I feel (GEMS) went great,” said BCS Superintendent Stiles Simmons. “The students were excited; the parents were excited. I think it exceeded everyone’s expectations. Having the opportunity to talk to the students or talk to the parents as they were transitioning from Baldwin to Grand Valley State University each weekend, I was able to really glean from them what they were experiencing.”

From June 11 to July 11, the GEMS students lived on campus and maintained a schedule similar to Upward Bound students. The students attended classes — like math, science and English — before lunch. Following lunch, the GEMS students had their GEM-specific class where they explored the possibilities of becoming educators. After classes, the students had a physical activity time, then a study period, and then free time to enjoy the campus amenities until the end of the day. The students returned home on the weekends.

At the end of the program, four BCS students received awards alongside of Upward Bound students. One of the awards a student received was for obtaining an “A” grade on every graded assignment throughout the month, while another student received recognition in a science category.

BCS student Josh Richards, 16, will be entering his junior year at Baldwin High School next week. He decided to participate in the GEMS program because he is considering attending GVSU to earn a degree in physical education.

Although the program would take up a month of his summer vacation, he wanted to join because the opportunity outweighed the missed social time.

“The month that you go, you might miss out on some things, but being prepared for college is kind of a big thing,” Josh said. “If you know ahead of time what college is like, that can make the difference of you dropping out of college or even going to college. I think that even if you miss a month of summer, you still have another one-and-a-half or two months that you can have fun and do stuff.”

Josh’s mother, Melissa Richards, said she had reservations about Josh living on a college campus while attending the program. However, after she spoke with GVSU staff, she felt comfortable with the idea.

“(They) really convinced me that they knew what they were doing and that it would be a safe environment for a high school student to be on a college campus,” Richards said.

In the beginning, recruiting students for the program was difficult. Simmons said he understands parents being hesitant about allowing their child to live on a college campus and take part in an inaugural program. The turning point in recruitment came after BCS staff members Ayana Richardson and Troycie Nichols got involved in the process, Simmons said.

Arnie Smithalexander, director of GVSU’s Upward Bound program, co-created the GEMS program with Brian Johnson, who now serves as the GEMS director.

Although the GEMS students’ program trajectory was very similar to Upward Bound, GEMS students also participated in cultural activities like visiting an art museum, a zoo and having lunch with the dean.

“We wanted to have them get to do something here because we wanted them to get to know what the city felt like,” Smithalexander said. “Because a lot of students who are from Baldwin have never been to downtown Grand Rapids, not been to the (Frederik) Meijer Garden or been to the zoo here, so we had one extra activity for them.”

Participating in the GEMS program was as much about attempting more challenging coursework and learning in a college setting as it was experiencing college life. Richards said the experience helped Josh mature and become more responsible.

Josh, who has participated in other college readiness activities at BCS, feels more prepared to attend college, he said. Richards also commended the district for providing college readiness opportunities for students to navigate their way through the often confusing and challenging path to attend college.

Josh would like to participate in the GEMS program again and his mother also would recommend it to other parents and students.

BCS and GVSU both plan to continue offering the program. Smithalexander hopes that students who attend the program one year, will continue to come back until they graduate. Simmons said he would like to see the program grow, and there also has been talks about students receiving credit for their GEMS courses, a stipend and joining on a trip that Upward Bound students take at the end of their program, he added.

“Now that we have moved past that point and the kids and parents really had a chance to experience it and enjoy it, we are looking forward to spreading the word,” Simmons said. “We feel that our recruitment efforts form this point forward will be a lot easier.”