Challenge Scholars

(Moderator note:  This post is written by guest contributor, Gayle Schaub, and is the first part in a series about her service-learning project).

This fall two academic librarians and a college professor embark on a brand new initiative in Grand Rapids, Michigan to improve a community by building academic success in a neighborhood. My name is Gayle, and I am one of the librarians. My idea was to teach 6th graders the information literacy skills they’ll need to be ready for college, and I knew I couldn’t do this alone. This is the first part of our story.

Challenge Scholars: The background

Students in the public schools on the West side of Grand Rapids, Michigan face a number of challenges to their educational success. Only 2% of high school juniors are college-ready, according to standardized test scores. 92% of the students come from economically disadvantaged households, but even with a way to finance higher education, without a college-going culture or the readiness to perform, a college education is out of reach for most. Challenge Scholars is a program developed and funded through the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. It promises scholarships for students attending the city’s West side public schools and will provide the support needed to insure academic success through the coordinated efforts and partnerships of local school systems, businesses, non-profits, and institutions of higher ed. By investing now in Grand Rapids’ children, everyone involved in Challenge Scholars is helping to build a better-educated and stronger workforce for the future.

I live on the West side. My sons graduated from Grand Rapids Public Schools. I’m a librarian at Grand Valley State University and want every student to have the chance to be a part of the institution like the one I’m proud to work for. I knew that I had to get involved in getting more than 22% (the current percentage) of my community’s students to obtain more than a high school education.

In December of 2013, I attended the Foundation’s first “Strategic Doing” session at Westwood Middle School. People from all over the city were there – the community’s “human capital.” We were encouraged to offer up whatever assets we had. Mine? I could work with students to build their information literacy, strengthen the critical thinking skills essential to college readiness. I decided to propose a service-learning/research collaboration to two GVSU colleagues, a librarian and a professor from the College of Education to create information literacy workshops with Westwood Middle School students.

My partners:

Lindy Scripps-Hoekstra, liaison librarian (like I am), is a former high school teacher. I thought she’d be a great partner, and sure enough, to our first meeting she brought an article detailing the collaboration of an Eastern University librarian, professor, and middle school teacher to create research workshops for gifted and talented 6th graders. That article turned out to be the inspiration for our project.

Sue Carson, a Fulbright scholar and faculty member in GVSU’s College of Education, teaches courses in foundations of education, special education, diversity in education. She has a great deal of place-based educational experience, having worked with students in Grand Rapids elementary schools. Her interest in interculturalism and socioeconomics in education and service learning were a perfect fit for what we were considering and Lindy and I were thrilled she agreed to sign on.

Our plan:

In September, we will begin a series of weekly research workshops with the 6th graders at Westwood Middle School. This group of Challenge Scholars will be the second cohort, graduating in 2021. Our 50-minute sessions will take them through the research process, from topic selection to finished product (paper, presentation, illustrations, etc.). They will be paired with students from Sue’s GVSU class, Diversity in Education. The college students will assist Lindy and me as we work through the various concepts and tasks, from identifying a research question to using a database to citing a source. They’ll be there to ask and answer questions, assist Westwood teachers, and gain valuable classroom experiences of their own. The semester will culminate with a student work exhibition/reception in the Mary Idema Pew Library in December. The exhibition will feature the student scholarship and offer parents, teachers, GVSU student mentors and faculty the chance to discuss the experience and celebrate the achievements of the Challenge Scholars’ as researchers.

None of this has happened yet. We’ve met with the teachers, and they’re happy but wary. I can’t say I blame them. They’ve seen researchers come and go, and they’ve had more than their fair share of college students who’ve been as much a hindrance as help, however well-intended their “service.” I hope, and we fully intend, for this to be a long-term, sustainable, scalable program that benefits everyone involved. GVSU college students get a semester-long chance to be in a classroom and build a relationship with a middle school student. GVSU professor and librarians get to do meaningful work that makes connections, puts theory into practice, and we believe, makes a difference. Westwood Middle School students get help building the critical skills they need to become the college students everyone knows they can be.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

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