PATHWAYS TO POSSIBILITIES: A COLLEGE-CHURCH URBAN YOUTH INITIATIVE
By Joan Huyser-Honig '80
Record snows cancelled school in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, but Carol Rienstra '70 wasn't lollygaging. She phoned an inner-city teen to discuss college plans. Next she called a girl who was "sick of being cooped in. I let her read to me over the phone for twenty minutes," Rienstra recalled.
Then she rang a boy who's taking piano lessons, thanks to a music scholarship Rienstra helped him get. She asked him to play a few pieces.
As the Pathways to Possibilities (P2P) coordinator at Holy Trinity Institutional Church of God in Christ, Rienstra says she does whatever it takes to help kids "love the Lord with all your heart, soul and MIND!"
Rienstra and her P2P cohorts in other churches (Partner Churches ) work with Calvin College to help urban kids picture themselves in and work toward a future that may include college.
Pathway is five bricks wide
P2P builds on a similar program in Detroit (see Start Young sidebar). Its five-part design, however, grew out of conversations sparked by several teen murders on one Grand Rapids street corner in 1994.
"Randal Jelks and I decided we needed to respond. We asked leaders from 18 central city churches to come and talk together. We agreed that city kids need healthy alternatives to the violence and drug culture of the street," said Steve Timmermans, Calvin dean for instruction. Jelks is the director of Academic Multicultural Affairs and teaches in the Calvin history department.
The church leaders saw education as the pathway out of poverty. They decided to start influencing children by fourth grade, the year many go astray. Recognizing the church as one of the most stable central city influences, Timmermans said, "We believed the Holy Spirit could use our churches in new and powerful ways. To be effective we'd need a variety of year-round programs based in neighborhoods and focused on pre-college activities."
The W. K. Kellogg Foundation eventually funded a partnership of Calvin College with ten Grand Rapids churches and two Muskegon churches. Pathways to Possibilities' five-part formula includes: local church initiatives; campus visits; Summer Journeys; Possibilities Pre-College Conference; and Entrada. The Herman Miller Foundation funds a similar program in Sun Valley, California, where three Christian Reformed churches--Bethel, Sol de Valle and Church of Love--share one building.
Pathway leads from local churches to the world
The grants pay for P2P coordinators in each partner church. "These churches were already good at youth outreach. We help them enhance existing ministries and begin new ones with an educational emphasis," said Rhae-Ann Booker, Calvin's director of pre-college programs. She and Timmermans meet often with P2P coordinators and pastors, so churches see "getting kids to college" as a ministry and so partner churches work together.
Several churches host career fairs, where kids and their families talk with church members or Calvin alumni about what it's like to be an aerospace engineer, brick layer, doctor, hair dresser or politician.
Nine of the twelve Michigan partner churches offer tutoring. "Our tutors help students correct academic problems and build one-on-one relationships," said Gloria Van Dragt '70. She and Flo Koster are P2P coordinators at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church. They recruited 16 Neland members and Mark Van Den Berge '84 found 5 alumni for 21 kids in grades 4-6 at Alexander Public School.
"One young lady's mom is in prison, so she lives with her grandma and nine other children. Having her tutor's attention for an entire hour each week makes her glow. Another girl's teacher told the tutor, 'This student was well behind. It's fantastic--in less than one semester, she's now functioning almost at grade level!'" Van Dragt said.
An Alexander teacher requested: "Do anything that will broaden their world." So Don Oppewal '50, a retired Calvin education professor, let his student (and the boy's two cousins) putz around in his home workshop, then took them to Winter Blowout, a gym night sponsored by Calvin's Recreation 305 class.
Regular campus visits help P2P students imagine a world beyond their neighborhood. Six evenings a month, Rhae-Ann Booker "opens" Calvin College to kids in grades 4-6, 7-8 and 9-12 for fun workshops put on by Calvin staff and students.
Kids explore Calvin's nature preserve, use the library to research their own home's history and become pawns in "Journey to College," a life-size board game. Their families are invited to campus for concerts, civil rights lectures and college admission workshops.
"Our 'Kids and Computers' series is really popular. Youth and their parents love exploring college websites and doing internet scholarship searches. It
was wonderful for me to observe a fifth grader doing a computer activity with his grandmother. She nearly jumped out of her seat when her grandson directed her to 'grab the mouse,'" Booker said.
Mentors help kids stay on track
Though Carol Rienstra has helped 100 Holy Trinity kids visit Calvin several times each, she's especially proud of one high school junior.
"His mom is on disability; his father lives in another city. He was on the brink of becoming a troublesome negative student when he connected with P2P in
1997. One-on-one mentoring, campus visits, the Possibilities conference and the hope of getting into Entrada all helped him focus on working hard in school," she said.
Rhae-Ann Booker said of the same teen, "His direction was getting seriously off track. All his good intentions about going to college would have gone down the drain if not for his consistent involvement with P2P and Carol Rienstra."
Summer Journeys (SJ) helps students aged 10 through 14 kids stay on track during summer. Through five weeks of Bible study, reading, writing and computer work, students focus on people who've made significant contributions to society. One summer they met with neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.
They also do team sports, rafting and rock climbing. Christian teachers, such as Janorise Barnes '96, run Summer Journeys in cooperation with Emmanuel Empowerment Corporation, a Baptist church alliance.
Learning that College is Doable
Summer Journeys and tutoring improve kids' grades. Campus visits inspire dreams about college and careers. But the annual Possibilities Pre-College Conference helps P2P students consider college for themselves.
Each June, 100 kids from grades 7 through 10 visit Calvin for a simulated college weekend. They register for courses, stay in dorms and attend classes--such as interactive immunology, African-American history in Michigan, making music videos--taught by Calvin faculty. The conference includes a segment for parents about ACT tests, financial aid and successful college entry.
Last November Gail De Young '76 organized a Possibilities conference in Rehoboth, New Mexico, for 77 kids in grades 9 through 12. Kathy Klaasen '70, the P2P coordinator in Sun Valley, California, boarded Amtrak with 25 high schoolers--many who'd never taken a train.
"They asked, 'Is the train supposed to shake like this? Will we tip on curves?' At the conference, Calvin professors taught classes and Rebohoth staff led outdoor challenges. It's one thing to be brave on the streets of L.A., another to confront your fears on a rope 30 feet above the ground," Klaasen said.
"College is a financial stretch for first-generation families. Many parents don't speak English well. They're fearful of the system. Schools are too understaffed for counselors to seek out kids to take the SAT or ACT.
"But the conference showed our kids they can succeed if they know how to use the system. Several told me, 'I really do want to go to college. I didn't think it was ever possible for me,'" Klaasen said.
While leading church school, GEMS and Cadets, Klaasen and her husband have watched Sun Valley kids mature. "I feel excited about what some of these kids could do in the Kingdom of God if they had the same opportunities our four children have. Everyone should have the chance to discover whether or not to try college," she said.
Calvin College's four-week Entrada program is the final step along many students' path to college. Open to ethnic minority high school juniors or seniors with a 3.0 GPA (B average), Entrada accepts 30 students per summer, about 10 from P2P churches.
They live in dorms and take college classes--for credit--along with Calvin students. Academic coaches attend the same classes and help Entrada students improve study skills. Entrada students study hard, play hard and do service projects.
"Sometimes Entrada students do better than the Calvin students in their summer courses. They leave Entrada knowing college will be academically rigorous, challenging--and definitely doable," said Rhae-Ann Booker.
Over 95 percent of Entrada graduates go on to college, about a third of them to Calvin.
Timmermans sums up how P2P helps at-risk students: "We are trying to create and strengthen the protective pathway that begins in the local neighborhood, weaves its way throughout the educational system and should arrive at the doorstep of post-secondary education or training."
Pathways to Possibilities is also changing Calvin. Booker said, "Calvin College is stretching its arms wider to nurture all God's children in the joys of higher education. Our minority and majority students see first-hand Calvin's commitment to embracing diverse groups and to partnering with others for the good of youth. P2P is like adding another log to a fire that began burning years ago and that the college refuses to let fizzle out."
FUNDED BY W. K. KELLOGG FOUNDATION, 1997-1999
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Messiah Missionary Baptist
New Hope Baptist
True Light Baptist
Eastern Avenue CRC
Neland Avenue CRC
Oakdale Park CRC
Sherman Street CRC
Great Joy World Outreach
Holy Trinity Institutional Church of God in Christ
SUPPORTED THROUGH FUNDS DONATED BY HERMAN MILLER FOUNDATION
Sun Valley, California
Sol de Valle CRC
Church of Love
FUNDED BY JOHN S. AND JAMES L. KNIGHT FOUNDATION, 1993-1996
Joy of Jesus
Church of the Messiah
The Pathways to Possibilities website is http://www.calvin.edu/admin/precoll/path.htm
Joan Huyser-Honig is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids.