The Rapidian

High school student college program might not be Bound Upward

Grand Rapids' chapter of the Grand Valley-based Upward Bound program is not as effective as it could be, and some ways positive change is possible.

/Kelsey May

An interview with two tutors from the Grand Valley-based Upward Bound summer program in an effort to start the conversation around evaluating and improving how the best and brightest of Grand Rapids Public Schools can make academic gains through the program and beyond.

It takes a stalwart kid to voluntarily attend summer school.

Every summer, Grand Valley State University hosts a chapter of Upward Bound, a national program that encourages high school students to embrace a college-bound mindset, preparing for the high entrance standards by taking challenging courses, participating in community service projects, and earning high school graduation credits during five weeks of their summer vacation.

Across the country, this program is widely successful. It offers a great opportunity for low-income and first generation students. This program emphasizes the potential that each student possesses to achieve academically. However, the Grand Valley chapter is riddled with issues that need to be addressed. I interviewed two tutors who wish to remain anonymous. We’ll call them Sandra and Will for the sake of this article. This is their side of the story, told in an effort to defend the very students that the program is designed to assist.

The daily schedule for students at Upward Bound looks like this: 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., students are in classes, back to back just like a normal school day. They’re taking subjects like Chemistry, English, and Pre-Calculus, subjects that would be difficult for anyone to master in a short five weeks. However, their advantage is they have little else to compete for their time. After school, they attend an hour-long mandatory physical activity. Then they have dinner and work for two hours during study tables. Then, any students whose names were reported by teachers for things like low grades, talking out of turn, or being late (even by thirty seconds) for class attend an additional two hours of late study tables, LST for short. It seems like a pretty rigorous program, one that encourages good study habits and fosters successful students.

While this set-up does have advantages, it exhausts the students. They have no free time. The teachers hold the attitude that if these students were given any leeway, they’d get into trouble. They’re inner city, after all. Sandra explained how she wished that the teens could select their afternoon physical activity because dragging students along to do something they aren’t interested in is a poor way to ‘reward’ them for a hard day spent indoors attending classes. The most pressing issue, however, is that the students in this program are not given opportunities to take initiative, problem solve, provide feedback, or apply critical thinking skills, characteristics that will determine whether or not these students are able to create and pursue their own dreams or whether they will be confined to only follow the dreams others instruct them to pursue.

The students themselves are bright. They’re electing to be in this program, spending more than a month away from home and working hard for the best grades they can earn. Unfortunately, the program’s teachers and leadership team seem to expect the worst from the students. I’ll be clear: some of the students are a little rough around the edges, at least in the eyes of many academics. They might tease each other more than is ‘necessary.’ They might use cuss words. (Although didn’t most of us cuss behind adults’ backs when we were younger?) They might have a hard time understanding or following through on directions the first time they’re asked to do something. But they’re well-meaning students, and they are eager to tackle their academics. And they’re sweet. “I got really close with a lot of the students,” Sandra told me.

What was most frustrating for Will was the lack of accountability. There were no all-teacher meetings where teachers could share tips and brainstorm ways to be more effective educators. The tutors, like Sandra and Will, were never asked for their input, observations, or feedback during or after the program. As an Education major and future teacher, he thinks the evaluation portion of each school segment is crucial. “When students have to get send home because they’re failing Chemistry, we have to ask ourselves, how did we fail them? Part of the responsibility is the student’s, but part of it is ours.”

Sandra also wanted to address this concern. Many of these issues could have been solved by meeting together as a leadership and staff team. However, when the tutors tried to organize a meeting, here’s what happened.

“Five out of the eight tutors went in together to air our concerns to the interim director. We were literally told that the program is run like a dictatorship by the former director who has now officially stepped down to assistant director. The director said that every summer, tutors have tried to ask questions and enact change, to no avail. He said most tutors never want to return… We asked questions and raised topics at our staff meetings that were blatantly ignored… We tried to have productive conversation about this with the staff, and it was completely stifled.”

She then gave me an example of an easily solvable problem that was never addressed by the program directors. One day, she was overseeing the late study tables session. Around thirty students regularly had to attend these sessions, which were used “as punishment” for the students whose grades were low or who had misbehaved during the day. That’s half of the program’s students. It leaves one to wonder whether these additional two hours were actually beneficial to students. There were a lot of students that particular evening from an anatomy and physiology class. They had been assigned LST because they’d failed a test that week. When she asked to see their assignments, she found that the test’s final question was worded in a way that left most students confused. This resulted in a failing score. She was stunned. 75% of the teacher’s class had been confused by the wording, yet the teacher had punished them for not understanding the directions rather than take responsibility himself for writing a poorly-worded question. 

Another night during study tables, Sandra was tutoring a group of students in math when a teacher came in the room. She immediately walked over to Rya*, a student in her Chemistry course. In front of the whole room, this teacher berated Rya for her laziness and poor attitude. Sandra recalled how she and Rya had spent the past two weeks practicing examples from class for hours at a time, and that her understanding of Chemistry had grown immensely. She was heartbroken to watch this teacher reduce Rya to tears in front of her classmates. “She was undoing all the hard work we’d just spent in building up Rya’s confidence.”

Will said, “It can all be summed up in the final graduation ceremony.” He proceeded to tell me how this exciting day where parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends gathered to celebrate their children’s academic success and promising futures. A group of students joined the program’s director, Ms. Arnie Smith, on stage. She asked the students to turn to their right, then to their left, which they did. Then, she said, “Now face north.”

The students didn’t know which way to face. The director used their confusion to illustrate a point.

"With the students’ parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings watching, the director of the program proclaimed to the students, and everyone else listening, that they would be ‘lost,’ ‘confused,’ and ‘dependent on others’ without a basic education, implying a post-high education,” Will said.

Will struggled to contain his frustration as he recalled his thoughts. Most of these students’ families had never been to college. Many hadn’t graduated high school. Some were immigrants from other countries, hoping to give their children opportunities they had never dreamed of having. “In her effort to scare the students into going to college, Ms. Smith totally ignored the fact that she made this ‘prophecy’ also to the students’ families, the majority of whom do not have college degrees, as this was a requirement for the students’ admittance into the program.” How could the director tell them that without a basic education, their lives had no direction or autonomy?

“I was so embarrassed that I didn’t meet any of the parents,” Will says. “I didn’t want to face them after they had just been insulted.”

I could continue sharing one heartbreaking anecdote after another, but I won’t. The purpose of this article is not to shame or slander anyone’s good intentions. In sharing their stories with me, the tutors wished that they possessed more power to change the way these students were being treated, that they could be seen for the imaginative, high-reaching young people that they are. Sandra and Will both desired that their input had been taken seriously because they had suggested concrete, implementable changes.

It is our wish that upon sharing these experiences, action will be taken to correct the negative attitudes and defeated thinking that has allowed such potential in the Upward Bound program to be squandered. We agree that the teachers and staff who help run this program are providing a great service to the sixty participants. But no program is immune to change, and progress must be striven for in order to give these students the best chance possible to achieve academically, socially, and economically, and most importantly, to have a voice in deciding what to do with their goals, dreams, and lives.


*This student is a minor, so her name has been changed to protect her identity.

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