Illinois Wesleyan volunteers are helping struggling
middle-school students find academic success for
the first time in their lives.
By Sarah Hedgespeth ’04,
with reporting by Jennifer Christopher ’03
Photos by Marc Featherly
“I can’t do this, there’s no way I can get a 100 on a test.”
Katie Rosensteele’s student at Bloomington Junior High School had learned she would
have a quiz over the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
With practiced patience, Rosensteele ’03 asked the girl, “Is this the only thing on
this test?” The girl replied with a hesitant yes. “Have you ever gotten a 100 percent
on a test?” “No,” the student answered.
“Then you have an opportunity to do something you’ve never done before,” Rosensteele
Rosensteele’s excitement must have been contagious because soon the 12-year-old who
had never felt prepared for a test in her life spent the better part of a week studying
The big Amendments quiz was on a Thursday. Rosensteele and her student spent their
sessions together on Tuesday and Thursday reviewing the material, and Rosensteele
noticed that her student was excited. She actually felt confident about a test, something
Rosensteele had never seen in her before.
The next week, after Rosensteele arrived for their Tuesday session, she and the girl
went together to ask her teacher about her quiz grade. She had gotten an A+.
“This is a student who gets mostly Fs and some Ds,” Rosensteele explains. “And for
her, this 100 percent was amazing. I was almost more excited than she was.”
Coaches like Rosensteele have been inspiring struggling students at Bloomington Junior
High School (BJHS) for more than two years now as part of the Promise and Potential
Partnership, a mentoring program designed to meet concerns expressed by BJHS faculty
about students they feared would slip through the cracks.
IWU Professor and Chair of Educational Studies Robin Leavitt joined forces with BJHS
coordinator and Head of Student Services Mary Aplington, and faculty and administration
from both Illinois Wesleyan and Bloomington Junior High. Together, they devised a
program that would, through direct intervention provided by IWU student volunteers,
give struggling BJHS students the extra help they need to succeed. After reading their
proposal for the Promise and Potential Partnership, Bloomington-based State Farm Companies
Foundation agreed to sponsor the program focused on understanding and meeting the
needs of students whom others often label as “at-risk.”
“We don’t like to label the students that we work with as ‘at-risk,’ and that’s why
we call our program Promise and Potential,” Leavitt explains. “While these students
may be struggling in school, we strongly believe that they all have the promise and
potential to succeed in school with the right interventions.”
Illinois Wesleyan has been placing teacher certification students at Bloomington Junior
High as part of their teacher education program for years. According to Leavitt, the
school was an ideal place to launch the Promise and Potential program because all
children in Bloomington who attend public school attend the junior high, which means
that “BJHS reflects the demographic diversity across this community,” she says. “Our
students can have experience with diverse students in all the community’s schools,
but in this one setting, they get it all. That’s very important to teacher education
— understanding the diverse populations in public schools and the relationship between
students’ backgrounds and their success in school.”
The Promise and Potential Partnership focuses on middle-school students, because “middle
school is often considered a critical point in terms of whether students are going
to make it or not,” Leavitt says. “It doesn’t happen in high school. It happens before
During the 2002-03 school year, 56 IWU volunteers mentored 68 BJHS students. While
many of the coaches are teacher education candidates, others are students who simply
want to give something back to the community. All coaches are trained by Leavitt,
Aplington, BJHS science teacher Dennis Taylor, and a pair of IWU student coach leaders
who previously participated as coaches in the program. Coach training includes learning
to identify struggling students’ needs and to address those needs in ways that build
skills for success that will sustain BJHS students long past their participation in
Coaches typically spend two 45-minute sessions with their individual students per
week and also observe those student during classes in which they may be having trouble
in order to get a better idea of their skills and participation level. During their
sessions, coaches typically focus on homework and often lend a sympathetic ear as
students confide personal problems. Those problems range from the typical dramas that
affect all young teenagers to more serious dilemmas.
|Last year’s Promise and Potential coach leader Jen Davis ‘03 jokes with one of her
BJHS students. By keeping the mood light, coaches build lasting friendships with students.
For example, Rosensteele recalls sitting down with one of her students to go over
a homework assignment which the girl had failed to complete. The teen seemed upset,
so Rosensteele asked if she’d like to go into the hallway so they could talk about
it. The eighth grader later revealed that she had witnessed a domestic disturbance
at a relative’s house, had spent most of the previous evening caring for her infant
cousin, and couldn’t complete her homework. It was the first time the girl had really
opened up to her coach, and it gave Rosensteele a much clearer picture of the kinds
of obstacles some students in the program face on a daily basis.
Leavitt stresses to the coaches that they must consider their students in the context
of their families. Coaches communicate with parents or guardians by writing them letters
about the work they have done together and improvements made by their children over
the course of their sessions.
According to Leavitt, this communication is especially important since parental involvement
can be a strong predictor of a student’s academic success. “One of the things we hope
to do with these letters is to send parents a positive message about their students,”
Leavitt says. “Very often they get bad report cards, disciplinary phone calls, or
truancy notices, and we want parents to hear from someone who knows their child and
has seen the child’s strengths and accomplishments.”
Coaches’ letters to parents about their children’s accomplishments reflect measurable
improvements in BJHS students’ academic performance. During the pilot year, 2001-02,
program assessment charted improvements in students’ grades and attendance, in addition
to other factors, such as classroom behavior.
The results of the assessment were overwhelmingly positive. During the coaching period,
50 percent of students in the program improved their grades. The number of students
with failing grade-point averages was cut in half, and one-third of the students involved
improved their school attendance. Even better news: according to BJHS teacher Dennis
Taylor, the program continues to have an impact on many students even after their
coaching sessions have ended. “To be honest, I thought that as soon as the coaches
left, many of the kids would drop everything and not care. Some do, but generally
most of them continue to try to do well,” he says.
After two years as a formal partnership, the Promise and Potential program continues
to make a difference — one that may have a national impact. With student co-leaders
Sara Voelker ’03 and Jen Davis ’03, Leavitt presented a report on the program at the
national meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Chicago this
past April. Since then she has received requests for more information from educators
as far away as New Zealand who are interested in applying the model to their own student
populations. Leavitt sees that model as particularly well suited for areas where coaches
can be recruited from a liberal arts setting like Illinois Wesleyan’s.
“I think other small, liberal arts schools could definitely do this in their communities,”
Leavitt says. “The Promise and Potential program demonstrates you don’t have to be
a major state or research institution to contribute to education in your community.”
Leavitt adds, “This partnership is just one of many connections IWU has made with
the local community under the leadership of the late President Minor Myers, jr., who
was always seeking to connect with the local community in ways that made a difference
in people’s lives.”
To ensure that it continues to make a difference in the community, the Promise and
Potential Partnership will continue to undergo yearly evaluations to make adjustments
and improvements wherever appropriate, according to Leavitt.
“What we do we want to do thoughtfully — we don’t necessarily want to get big,” she
says, “but we do want to get it right.”
* * *
Mike Clark’s first day volunteering for the Promise and Potential program last spring
was not looking all that promising. His student Julia (not her real name) had arrived
for their session without any of her schoolbooks. When Clark ’03 asked where the missing
books were, she replied, “In my locker,” with the deadpan sarcasm of a typical junior
BJHS’s Dennis Taylor, who is one of her teachers, recalls that Julia often came across
as cold and untrusting before she began participating in the program. Her last coach,
though, had opened Julia up quite a bit, and her subsequent relations with Taylor
also improved as a result, he says. However, Clark quickly learned that, despite these
previous inroads, Julia’s trust and respect would not be easily won. After sending
her back to retrieve her books, she returned again empty-handed.
|Assisted by their coaches, program participants get a lesson on Internet research
at IWU’s Ames Library.
Clark knew he was being tested. With a calm demeanor and friendly smile, he accompanied
Julia back to her locker. When they returned to the classroom, he was carrying her
books for her, and she finally cracked a smile. As she read, he periodically tossed
out a joke or words of encouragement. When she finished, Clark said, “Look at that,
we’re done!” and held his hand up for a high five. For a moment, Julia eyed his hand
hesitantly, and just when it looked as if she wouldn’t return the gesture, she put
her hand up. The first of many steps had been taken, and it was definitely in the
Within such small interactions, Taylor believes, lies the larger success of the Promise
and Potential Partnership.
“When people develop relationships and realize that someone cares about them and that
they have the ability to care about others, it transfers to other things like schoolwork,”
he says. “First you have to have that relationship and bond. The most successful coaches
and teachers find some way to build a working, friendly, comfortable, safe relationship
with the kids.”
The positive relationships built between coaches and students are the foundation for
an equally important partnership between coaches and teachers, in which both parties
learn from each other, according to Leavitt. Coaches engage in direct communication
with BJHS teachers about their students, sharing insights that might help teachers
to understand and respond to those students as they teach them. Leavitt also says
coaches’ one-on-one sessions with students free teachers to engage in other teaching
tasks and attend to other students while assured that someone is working with students
who need more individual attention.
“Teachers are overwhelmed with all the responsibilities they have,” Leavitt says.
“The primary thing an IWU student can do for teachers is to spend individual time
with students. Think what it would mean for a teacher if he or she could spend one-on-one
time with all of his or her students. One class of 30 students would be a full-time
job, but they have five classes or more.”
Despite their busy schedules, Leavitt says that the BJHS teachers involved with the
program have gone out of their way to assist the coaches and to ensure the program
runs smoothly on their end.
“They make this work, they really do,” she says. “And they go the extra mile. The
extra mile to meet with us and their school colleagues, to work with our students,
to work with their students, and putting in the extra hours required to engage in
a partnership. They’re really dedicated. I can’t say enough about how much I respect
and admire these very hardworking teachers who know a lot about what they do.”
* * *
One of the most difficult decisions that teachers have to make regarding the Promise
and Potential Partnership is determining which students need this kind of help the
most. Because there aren’t enough coaches available to meet the number of struggling
students, it’s up to the teachers to decide who will benefit most from participation.
BJHS students are given the choice of opting out of the program if they do not want
to participate, but few make that decision. Students can also nominate themselves
for inclusion, and teachers take that self-selection into consideration when making
their final recommendations.
Having a coach is now considered something of a status symbol at Bloomington Junior
High, according to Taylor. “The students who don’t have coaches are asking, ‘When
do I get a coach? How do I get a coach? Do you have a coach for me?’” he says. “Not
only does that show that they have some interest in doing better in school, but also
that the kids who are in the program hear them talk and realize that they have got
an asset here, a resource that is valuable.”
Still, even students with a strong desire to be in the program go through an inevitable
period of adjustment. There are days when you feel their resentment and resistance,
Voelker says. According to her, students may be reluctant at first to befriend their
coaches. It often comes down to a matter of trust.
Davis says this period of adjustment is only natural, given the background of some
of the children, who “can’t count on someone to show up every day in their life, whether
it’s a parent, a guardian, whatever. Once you start building trust, you see the kids
believe that you’re coming, they know you’re coming, that you listen to them,” she
says. “Sometimes, you make a deal with them to bring in a candy bar when they’re doing
well on something that took a lot of effort, and get to see their faces when you pull
it out of your bag. They look like, ‘Oh my gosh, they did do it. They came through
on what they said.’ That’s really special to me. That’s the whole point of it, I guess.”
Forming a bond with students, coaches discover, means personalizing their relationship.
They learn about their students — what they like to do, what are their hopes and aspirations.
That knowledge helps break down the barriers, giving coaches a real chance to make
a difference in their students’ lives.
During her first year, Davis coached a boy whose passion was basketball. As soon as
the junior high’s basketball season was over, he felt lost. Basketball had given him
something to look forward to, a reason to stay motivated, and something productive
to do after school. Davis showed him that just because the season was over didn’t
mean he had to shut down. She found information about various basketball camps and
summer leagues that he could join. He learned that there are other ways to be involved.
“I think that’s our job,” Davis says, “showing them that there are resources out there
to help them, and they’re not just stuck with the hand they’re dealt.”
It usually takes time for coaches to see the results of their sessions with students.
According to Taylor, coaching can be a particularly frustrating task. Given the time
constraints on their sessions, many coaches “may not see the impact they have on these
kids. The impact they have may come even two or three years later,” he says. However,
most coaches come to realize that even the smallest victories add up eventually.
After participating in the program, many BJHS students have tasted these small successes
— a B on a quiz they expected to flunk, the satisfaction of being called on in class
and correctly answering a tough question, the relief of not having to explain another
truancy notice to their parents — but Davis is quick to stress that the students themselves
are responsible for their improvements.
|Associate Professor of Sociology Georganne Rundblad speaks to program participants
about their plans for the future during their visit to IWU.
“When I first started, I thought, ‘I can change this person’s life.’ After I was in
there, I saw that was not going to be the case at all. They end up changing their
lives,” Davis says.
Last April, participating BJHS students were invited to visit Illinois Wesleyan. They
toured the campus, seeing where their coaches study and where they go to unwind. Some
students even got the opportunity to sit in on a college class.
The visit revealed that these students have high aspirations of their own. When Associate
Professor and Chair of Sociology Georganne Rundblad asked them what they’d like to
be when they grow up, the group of BJHS students cited such career goals as becoming
doctors, teachers, and nurses; most of them wanted to enter a field requiring a substantial
amount of education. Some worried about their ability to achieve such lofty ambitions,
but their coaches promised them that they have what it takes to make it.
As Kelly Riesselman ’03 showed her student around Illinois Wesleyan’s campus, the
boy asked her “What if I don’t make it to college?”
“You’ll make it,” she replied.
“But what happens if I don’t?” he asked, voice full of uncertainty. “What happens
if I can’t graduate high school?”
“You will,” Riesselman reassured him. “You’ll study, and you’ll work really hard.
Then you’ll make it. That’s why we’re doing this.”
“I hope I can,” he said. “I think I’d really like college.”
To read more on the Promise and Potential Partnership, visit the program’s Web site