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SPARKS helps students ignite interest in academic success

In the constant search to find better ways to help students achieve their goals, one Regional Education Service District in Clare and Gladwin counties has come up with a program that has shown huge success. Second Wave's Kim North Shine does her homework and files this report.
Trevor Blaine, an 18-year-old Farwell High School senior, has gone from aimless freshman to ambitious, soon-to-be graduate, a change brought on, he says, by programs that gave him a chance to make up classes he had blown off. In turn, he took hold of a second chance to earn credits for a degree his dreams now are connected to--a degree and dreams that could have slipped away.

"It's not an exaggeration. Without this I would not be graduating, I would probably be here in high school another year or year and a half, if I even stayed," says Blaine, who lives in Lake Station and got his second chance from a program called 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which uses federal and state funding to help underachieving students in low-performing school districts with high poverty levels.

Thousands of Mid-Michigan students have enrolled in 21st Century centers since 2003, a great number of them turning around lagging performance. In Clare-Gladwin Schools, where Blaine is a student, the districts of Farwell, Beaverton, Gladwin and Harrison offer the 21st CCLC programs and projects that give a much-needed nudge to children--and families--who are struggling, close to failing or failing, and to students who need to be kept busy after school and kept interested in learning. There are after-school programs, summer school, summer field trips, special courses on bullying, budgeting, healthy eating and more and both for students and families. There are enrichment projects such as Iron Chef chili cook-offs, robotics competitions and business creation contests.

While some students still slip through the cracks, there have been significant jumps in attendance and graduation rates, says Carol Westjohn, the director of 21st CCLC for Clare-Gladwin Regional Education Service District.
The district, which serves several Mid-Michigan counties, oversees SPARKS, Students Participating in Academics and Recreation for Knowledge and Success for elementary-aged kids; Mini Society, a disguised-learning approach for middle schoolers; and Learning Centers, where high school students receive intervention to prevent failing classes or assistance recovering lost graduation credits, says Joseph Trommater, assistant director of the program.

It's all paid for with 21st Century Learning Centers dollars handed down from the federal and state departments of education and by organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Blaine is a walking, talking example of how 21st Century Learning Centers can change a life, taking one 15-year-old from immature, aimless and unprepared, to focused on a college and career and in line for scholarship money.

"During my freshman year, what happened was I thought, 'I have plenty of time for school, why don't I go do something more entertaining. That left me with only four credits my freshman year," says Blaine.

In his sophomore year, he decided to try online courses to catch up.

"It didn't work, even though I started out with good intentions," he says. "I didn't have a computer with Internet in my house--I had to use the public library. That was 15-20 minutes away," he says.

After that he decided to take the credit recovery courses created through the 21st Century Learning Centers funding. For two years he attended the Learning Center, what he calls after-school classes, at Farwell High.

He wants to be an engineer, is thinking about internships rather than how to be entertained. He plans to attend Kettering University in Flint. It's a long way from the reluctant days of entering the Learning Center his sophomore year.

"At first I was thinking, 'I don't want to do this because I'm going to be at school two more hours, not to mention the bus ride home,'" he says. "I told myself, 'I have to do this.'

"It's online and teachers are there to help you out. It's a lot more self-driven than in the classroom, but you don't have a teacher barking over you. You have to do it yourself, be responsible," he says.

His change in trajectory was so impressive that the state superintendent of schools, Mike Flanagan, presented Blaine with the Turnaround Student Award last year.

Other students have come around to the same way of thinking.

"Last year, 8 percent of all graduating seniors in the districts we serve graduated on time because of credits recovered through our program. In one district, it was 25 percent of seniors," Trommater says.
As of now, with one program in the fifth year, two in the fourth year, and one in the third year at various schools, a total of about 600 courses have been recovered so far, he says.

Stories like Blaine's are about more than churning out data and producing measurable results of a state and federal educational program. It's about how such a turnaround can contribute to the betterment of a city, county, state, community and business landscape; kids who graduate high school are more of a community asset than those who don't.

"We are introducing students to communities and their role in them, so they know they're part of bigger things," Westjohn says.

She says 8,670 Clare-Gladwin students enrolled between 2003 and the end of the 2010-11 school year. This year there are just under 800 students enrolled in SPARKS projects, which come with the goals of increased attendance and academic performance. Some programs are related directly to the curriculum, others are pure enrichment, but all courses strive for a profound effect on kids.

"They not only get individual attention. They are also given things to do with their hands, project-based stuff. It's also giving them choices, (saying) you can do this -- and giving them a voice. There are advisory boards to hear what they want. And the pressure is off after school. There's no tests. We try to make it engaging. We keep the respect level up. It's not more school. It's learning, but not more school," says Westjohn.

Analysis of the program shows that the longer the student is in SPARKS, the better their attendance, and that the longer student is in SPARKS, the better their GPA becomes.

"We're working with kids who are quite at risk," she says. "The whole idea is if they are enjoying our program, they're going to come to school more often."

The programs are meeting or exceeding goals for absences and grade point averages and inevitably building toward more stories like Blaine's.

"We have students that have been in the program a long time. They've actually come back to work in the program. We have parents and principals come to our advisory meetings and give stories about how SPARKS saved a child," Westjohn says. "We haven't been around long enough to have a 25 or 30-year-old come back and say it's changed their lives. We do have data to say this many students achieved this or more students are graduating on time."

With the credit recovery program behind him and college ahead, Blaine is weighing college costs and grateful that counselors have shown him a way to cut his college costs in half.

"Part of what made me want to graduate and get serious was watching both my parents work 40 hours a week and still have trouble financially," he says." I thought, if I want to live my life differently, I have to do this."

Kim North Shine is a freelance writer based in Michigan.

Photos by Avram Golden.

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