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Aiming for graduation: Tutors, mentors sought to boost iGrad program

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A program that began during the summer to help at-risk students in Bartholomew County graduate from high school is ready to take the next step. But for that to happen, the program needs at least 300 people to step up and serve as volunteer mentors and tutors.

iGrad, a cooperative effort of the Community Education Coalition, Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus/Franklin and Cummins Inc., is unique, said Mark Gerstle, vice president and chief administrative officer at Cummins Inc. and chairman of the coalition.

He refers to the local effort as “the art of the possible.”

It is part of a broad-based campaign in Columbus to improve education, starting with preschool and continuing through college. The Community Education Coalition is pushing to double the county’s percentage of adults who have 2- or 4-year degrees from 30 percent to 60 percent by 2015. The state average is 20 percent.

Yet, if the coalition is going to succeed, high school graduation rates have to increase first.

The project’s partners want to increase four-year graduation rates, which are currently about 80 percent countywide, to 100 percent within five years.

“We’ll get the graduation as close to 100 percent as any school in the country,” Gerstle said. “This’ll do it.”

Proponents of the education initiatives say a better education results in a larger workforce of trained professionals with an ability to attain higher salaries and a higher quality of life.

John Quick, superintendent of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., referred to the overall educational effort as a “school of one,” made up of efforts that include improving and expanding prekindergarten options and driving home the availability of college Pell Grants and 21st Century scholarships.

Pell Grants, which do not have to be repaid, are available depending on students’ financial needs, costs to attend school and their part- or full-time academic status. They are worth $5,500 a year.

The 21st Century Scholars program calls for students to sign up in eighth grade for a free college education to a state school, available to Indiana families eligible for the free- or reduced-lunch program, provided minimum grade-point averages are maintained and students stay out of trouble.

In the short period it has existed, iGrad already has six team leaders and nine coaches, who are paid by Ivy Tech. Those individuals are spread through the Bartholomew Consolidated and Flat Rock-Hawcreek school systems’ middle schools and high schools. The program also has a 20-volunteer head start on its next phase, which is to bring volunteer mentors and tutors into the fold who can work directly with at-risk students.

“The impact we’ve had in 10 weeks is amazing,” said Bill Jensen, director of second education at the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. “This is an effort to get students college- and career-ready.”

Tutors, students matched

Students can be considered at risk for various reasons that range from academic struggles to problems at home or problems showing up regularly to school.

Kaitlynn Dye, a freshman in the program at East High School, struggles mostly in science and social studies. She said her grades have improved since she started seeing an iGrad coach, although she is looking forward to getting a tutor who can take on some of her more direct needs.

Shari Sanders, an iGrad coach at East High School who sees about 36 students, including Dye, said her daily role is to encourage her students, perhaps by lending them a helpful ear about problems in school or at home or helping them realize in what areas they might be falling short in their studies.

Cummins Inc. has contributed $500,000 and the Community Education Coalition gave $250,000 to fund iGrad, which has allowed for small offices to open at schools countywide.

Dave Wright, project manager for the Community Education Coalition, said a total of about 300 students are already meeting with coaches, who mainly work to ensure that students are on a path to graduation. But those coaches for now also are tutoring until actual tutors are found.

Tutors are matched with students based on the tutors’ fields of expertise and the students’ needs. Mentors are intended more as role models who personally guide students, perhaps all the way through the first years of college and helping them learn things such as how to study and manage their time.

Wright called the mentoring role “checking and connecting,” stressing accountability. He said all tutors and mentors have to pass a “robust background screening” and will be encouraged to commit to at least one year with a student before or after the school day on school grounds.

“We need some folks to build relationships so these kids don’t get lost,” Quick said. “I think people will find this rewarding once they really connect with a student.”

Gerstle said the ideal situation would be to achieve a 1-1 ratio among students and volunteers. He said iGrad needs about 300 volunteers to fill that role and probably would need as many as 500 next school year.

Connecting with students

iGrad is still in its pilot stage. For now, the coaches meet with students at the schools.

Jensen said the time that volunteers give to the program will be tailored to their schedules. He said the volunteers’ time commitment also would play a role in how they are paired with students.

The volunteer program is under way, albeit as a muffled-down version that has yet to catch fire in the community.

Christy Boes, a team leader who oversees volunteer coaches at Columbus East, Central Middle School and Columbus Signature Academy New Tech, said most of them so far have come from Cummins Inc., which is taking an active role in recruiting efforts. But she said other coaches have come from the student body.

Katie Schmidt, an East senior who tutors a younger student there, said she signed up because she wants to help other succeed. She said the experience is helping her develop patience and is enriching her life.

“I enjoy connecting with them in such a real way,” she said.

Boes said a clear example of the program’s success can be found on the dry-erase board in her iGrad classroom, where one at-risk student pledged to graduate from the ninth grade, while another pledged to graduate from high school. Both did so without any prompting from iGrad supporters.

“You can be that one person in a student’s life to show that someone really cares,” Boes said when asked about volunteering. “You could change the life of a person forever.”

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