Middle college helps nontraditional students

Eric Wood climbs the stairs to his first-hour world government class, listening intently to a lanky youth in a baseball cap who matches his stride while confiding a personal crisis involving a friend in need of some sound advice.

With his stylish glasses and honey-brown hair brushing his upper back, Wood easily could be confused for one of the 285 students who attend Mott Middle College, an alternative high school on the campus of Mott Community College.

In fact, Wood, now 27, walked these halls as a student a decade ago. He was among the first 43 students to graduate in 1994 from MMC High School, which is designed for struggling students who, though capable of academic excellence, have tuned out academics or are poised to drop out. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree with a double major in history and English from Central Michigan University before returning as a teacher in the fall of 1999.

“Actually, I decided to become a teacher while I was here,” Wood said. “I realized that it was something that I would really like to do. Especially helping students that were like myself. I didn’t want anyone to suffer like I had suffered.”

A smiling student working on an art project holds up her hands to show that they are covered in paint.
Patricia Gregoire enjoys her art class.

Wood wraps up his conversation with the student by offering some guidance on where his friend can get help, then breezes into a classroom where 15 students await. After quickly taking attendance, he hands out copies of a list of developing countries from a World Bank website and launches into a Socratic-style lecture on world governments.

Although MMC offers its students a full, general high school education, it veers markedly from traditional high schools.

The hallmarks of its success with students whom others have given up on are its innovative curriculum and an instructional model stressing that the emotional well-being of students is integral to whether they are ready to learn. As a practical matter, this means teachers are advisers first, purveyors of content second.

“We are trying to get these kids intensive care in counseling and understanding them psychologically, but also intensive care to understand that you bring your whole human body to learning,” said Chery S. Wagonlander, the principal of the school since it was established in 1989 with a planning grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

“And if you’re not well physically, if you’re not well mentally, if you’re not well in what you can remember cognitively, how could you be happy? Why would you be engaged?”

The school’s 14 teachers are expected to develop their own curricula for their courses. But the classroom heavyweights are the math and social history curricula, which were designed elsewhere but are being used at MMC. In fact, MMC has been tapped to train educators at other schools in how to use both curricula.

“A lot of our innovative curricula has been done through a national group effort,” said Wagonlander, referring to the National Middle College Consortium, a network of middle-college principals interested in improving student learning through education reform.

For example, the national consortium wanted to review math instruction because so many students were “math-phobic,” says Wagonlander, who sits on the consortium’s executive board. After assiduous research, the consortium settled on two instructional models for mathematics — the California College Preparatory Math and the Texas Individualized Math Project.

MMC qualified as a national pilot for both instructional models and also was named a dissemination site for a New York-designed curriculum called the American Social History Project, which combines American history and American literature.

The social history project relies on original source material, such as letters and historical documents. But instead of looking at history through what Wood calls the “great-man-of-history lens,” students are asked to investigate how average people fit into the story of America.

“You really explore how racial relations have changed, how gender relations have changed and how classes interact with each other in America,” said Wood, who has taught the curriculum and trains other teachers on how to use it. “And we do that by not exploring the upper class as much as the working class and the middle-income class.”

The teachers who team-teach the social history curriculum localize it with history from the Midwest and Michigan. For instance, they created a unit on the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 and how it played into the then-growing labor movement nationwide.

Over the past three years, teachers in five school districts in Genesee County have been trained in the social history curriculum.

Joe Eufinger is one of those teachers. The classroom veteran uses it with his 10th graders at Flint Central High School.

“The program gives you more good materials to work with, and having good materials is always a good thing,” Eufinger said.

“The materials tend to be interesting. They tend to be relevant. They tend to keep the kids’ interest. These materials — in the hands of a good teacher — make good things happen.”

Educators everywhere have long struggled to keep students interested in learning.

In the late 1980s, educators in Genesee County grew alarmed about the sizeable numbers of students who, disenchanted with school, quit before graduation. In 1988, the Mott Foundation gave a $69,725 planning grant to Mott Community College to work with the Flint Community Schools and the Genesee County Intermediate School District to explore dropout prevention programs and to increase the number of nontraditional students pursuing higher education.

Three years later, with the help of two Foundation grants totaling $274,164, MMC was launched as the nation’s first multidistrict middle college high school, operated by an unusual partnership of MCC, Flint schools and GISD. Any student from the county’s 21 school districts could be considered for enrollment. Several years later, eligibility expanded to students who live in any county adjacent to Genesee County.

With Foundation support totaling $1,529,094 since its inception, MMC has since become a model for other school districts grappling with the problem of keeping students in school.

Dozens of school districts have adopted the middle college model in whole or in part, many with technical assistance from MMC. Two middle college high schools — one in Pittsburgh and another in Nashville — have replicated MMC in its entirety.

There are now 80 middle college high schools nationwide, although only 30 belong to the national consortium.

The consortium collects data from each of the middle colleges to document the model’s success. This spring, MMC became only the second middle college to complete a longitudinal study, looking at successes and failures with its first 10 graduating classes.

Even as others are eager to replicate the model, MMC itself is undergoing a redesign of sorts. In recent years, anywhere from 96% to 100% of graduates have gone on to college. Data on two- and four-year college completion rates are incomplete. However, aware that some graduates were dropping out of higher education, MMC has begun to work more closely with the community college guidance staff to help students stick with their education.

At the same time, the early college movement — under which students earn a high school diploma and up to a two-year associate’s degree — has been gaining momentum, thanks in part to a $40 million philanthropic effort led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to open 100 such facilities in five years.

Innovative curricula are designed to engage students.

In 2003, MMC secured a three-year, $142,000 grant from the Gates Foundation, allowing students to stay a 13th year in high school. Under this program, dubbed Excel, students will graduate with a diploma and will have completed a minimum of three college classes up to earning an associate’s degree from MCC.

As a middle college with an early-college component, MMC now is a replication site for both early colleges and middle-college high schools.

“When [someone adopts] even one component of something you’re doing that has helped re-engage and sustain young people and give them the skills to go on — that’s replication; that’s outreach,” Wagonlander said.

Typically, dropouts are tagged as losers, not bright, belligerent or insubordinate.

But Wagonlander says research shows them to be just the opposite — highly creative individuals with the ability to see the world from many perspectives and keen senses of justice and fair play.

“We get students who are seriously disengaged in learning,” she said. “And a lot of this started in third and fourth grade, and more of it started in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. But I call them ‘drop-ins’ or ‘hanger-oners.’ By the time we get them, they have been hanging on to school. They have been dropping in.”

Wagonlander and her staff understood that a new approach had to be used with these students to whet their appetite for learning.

“We know in our model of learning that if we do not understand and handle the attitudes and perceptions that the learner brings to the moment of learning and that the teacher brings to the moment of learning, you have less learning,” she said.

But to get there, the students first needed help looking at how they feel about themselves and working to repair fragile self-images.

“We give them the armor to understand how they behave and why they behave the way they do and that they can feel differently, they can behave differently, they can make different choices,” Wagonlander said.

Wood recalls his own path from a suburban high school, which he left at the end of his sophomore year after run-ins with administrators and about 100 days of suspension, to his time as a student at MMC, where school became enjoyable again.

He said he was overwhelmed by the respect that MMC administrators and staff gave students and the effort they made to get to know and understand them as people. At the same time, it was clear that the students were expected to be active learners.

“They really held to a firm line of ‘This is an educational process and you need to be an active participant in this,’” Wood said.

“‘We’re not going to force-feed this to you. We’re not going to make you learn. We’re going to present information and help you learn. But you’re doing it for you.’ And that’s something that’s stuck with me even as a teacher now.”

That message is still getting through to students like Heaven Moore, a senior, and Bradley Donley, who graduated with honors in June 2004.

“This isn’t a school that you want to come to if you don’t want to do anything with your life,” said Moore, who wears her brown hair long and usually dresses in black. “The people here are really going to try to help you if you want.”

Moore, a Flint resident, left a local charter school that she found stifling for MMC, where she relishes the freedom of its open campus.

As a dual enrollee at MMC and the community college, she even has adjusted to the hours of homework that comes with college classes. She plans to graduate in June 2006 with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

Moore says her parents are supportive and proud of the work she’s doing as the first member of her family on track to a diploma. Her parents and her two older brothers all dropped out of high school.

“So it’s going to be a really big accomplishment in my family if I do graduate college, let alone high school,” said Moore, who wants to be a psychologist and incorporate art therapy into her practice.

“The greatest thing about Mott Middle College is the diversity. I’ve never seen a school where there’s so much diversity. There are all kinds of people. There are white people. There are black people. There are gay people. There are people that dress like me. There are preppy people.”

Donley left a suburban high school midway through 10th grade to follow a brother and sister to MMC. Although he missed a lot of school that year because the deaths of four family members and his own case of pneumonia, he felt that at his old school he was “just another number instead of actually a person, and that no one really cared.”

Perhaps the biggest thrill for Donley has been the extracurricular activities that Wagonlander believes are essential in shaping well-rounded individuals. She also requires students to do volunteer work, internships and job shadowing.

Donley’s travels included trips to Seattle for a national conference of middle-college students; Chicago with MMC’s steel drum band, the Steelheads; and Canada to watch live theater.

“It just gets you out and helps you see more than what you know. It takes you outside the box, so to speak,” said Donley, a musician who wants to attend a school in Georgia to learn how to make guitars.

The reasons students have for choosing MMC are as diverse as the student body.

“They’re different. They’re odd. They’re too smart. Their parents are in trouble. They’re in trouble. A parent is sick. Name it, and there’s a kid here for that reason,” said Terryl Sperlich, who has taught classes as varied as medieval studies, French history and science fiction.

“If you hear these kids’ stories, it just rips your heart right out. They overcome incredible obstacles just to be in school.”

But there is a common thread that weaves through their stories.

“They all have a desire to start fresh, to be in a different learning environment so they can … do better,” Wagonlander said.

For Sperlich, who has taught at MMC since its inception, student focus groups are one of the most relevant features of the school. Each focus group, which meets twice weekly, has up to 20 students and is a platform for identifying different activities, especially community service projects.

“Focus group is not like home room. It’s not like therapy. It’s more like your family,” she said.

“When it’s done right, it’s one of the most cohesive things that brings this school together.”

Wagonlander says the goal with students is to make them “work-ready and education-hungry” and to help them “understand that you never get finished with your training or learning.”

Wood couldn’t be a more perfect example. He will finish his master’s degree this fall, with plans to earn a doctorate and teach at the college level some day.

But for now, he says, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else. I’ve always felt that if I’m going to teach high school, this is the high school I want to teach at.”