Classrooms at Ypsilanti Community High School are usually quiet and empty on Saturdays, but they haven’t been for the past month.
Instead, students from several middle schools and high schools across the district have been examining the nutritional content of snack foods, organizing presentations about alternative energy and learning how to invest money.
These are just a few of the topics covered in the project-based learning and intensive curriculum courses students engage in as part of their involvement with the University of Michigan’s Wolverine Pathways program.
Wolverine Pathways was announced in fall 2015 by President Mark Schlissel as a supplemental educational program for students who live within the boundaries of the Ypsilanti and Southfield school districts and are entering seventh and 10th grades. Students do not need to be students in the Ypsilanti or Southfield public schools.
The students participate in fall and winter sessions, each consisting of eight Saturdays of project-based, hands-on courses, as well as intensive math and speech and communication arts courses. They also participate in a 16-day summer session consisting of daylong, Monday-Thursday courses over four weeks.
The program is offered at no cost to students and families. Each student who successfully completes the Wolverine Pathways program, applies to U-M and is admitted will be awarded a full-tuition scholarship for four years, a $60,000 value.
Now in its second year, the Wolverine Pathways launched its Detroit pilot program this winter and hosts 50 students from 20 different schools within the city. Among all three districts there are more than 400 students.
Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, says the program is paramount to the university’s dedication to becoming more accessible and providing opportunities to students in communities that are historically underrepresented on campus.
“We were very intentional in our decision to include Ypsilanti, Southfield and Detroit into the Wolverine Pathways program because these communities have such diverse makeups,” Sellers says.
“We want the University of Michigan campus to better reflect the full diversity of backgrounds represented in Michigan and nationally, and this program will help make that goal come to fruition.”
Dana Davidson, project coordinator for Wolverine Pathways, says she is happy with the growth of the program from the first year to the second, not just in terms of the number of participants, but also in the way the program has opened up to more students in the districts it serves.
“We’ve really focused this year on bettering our approach to recruiting. A lot of recruiting has to do with finding the young people, getting time with them and their parents and persuading them that this is an opportunity they’re right for and that they can grow to be more University of Michigan-ready,” she says.
“We work in partnership with several school districts in the area — Southfield, Ypsilanti, Detroit — and the leadership in those areas is great. We’re still looking for ways to reach the smaller entities within those communities, such as private school and charter school students, but the relationships we’ve established have been great.”
For Washtenaw Technical Middle College 11th-grader Bushra Nimer, word-of-mouth advertising was enough to get her to apply to the program.
Nimer says she learned about Wolverine Pathways from a family friend whose daughter applied. After coming to an informational session about the new program, she knew it was the perfect opportunity for her — one that would open doors for her and hopefully end with her attending her dream school.
“You hear nothing but great remarks about U-M and how it’s a leader in research and medicine and law and so many disciplines. The university has contributed to the most useful research all around the world, and knowing everything it has to offer and everything I want to do, I’m so thankful that Wolverine Pathways is creating an opportunity like this for me and others like me who are passionate about these things,” she says.
“We’re doing labs in our science classes, we’re taking field trips and seeing the way things impact the environment, and they’re bringing in professionals to talk to us and provide us with such an immense amount of resources.
“The most useful resource for me has been the pipeline to internships. I recently accepted an internship opportunity with U-M’s new Health Equity Collaborative, which accepts one Wolverine Pathways student each year. Everything that has to do with this program provides us with so many opportunities to succeed,” Nimer says.
Her early successes with the program aren’t unique. Robert Jagers, associate professor of education and leader of the Wolverine Pathways program, says the curriculum and the breadth of resources made available to the students were designed based on rigorous research and implemented into the program so students are put in the best possible positions to succeed.
Jagers and a team of educators at U-M designed a curriculum for the program with the goal of reinforcing what students are learning in their current schools as well as challenging them in new, exciting ways.
“We’re trying to build on evidence-based best practices in the field of adolescent development and high school-to-college transition, as well as more practical kinds of experiences. Many of our peer institutions have programs, so what we’re trying to do is glean from those experiences and figure out how best to develop and implement a program in this context,” he says.
“Even the idea of pushing out into communities instead of bringing scholars on campus was informed by looking at our situation and the number of young people we wanted to have in the program and how we wanted for it to grow over time.”
Jagers’ approach to integrating into communities is something O’Shai Robinson says really gets people to buy into U-M’s commitment to communities like Ypsilanti, Detroit and Southfield.
Robinson, a Wolverine Pathways district facilitator, handles day-to-day operations of the program’s Ypsilanti location. In his role, he’s the first point of contact for the teachers, students and parents. He also makes sure classrooms are adequately set up with supplies and he coordinates breakfast and lunch, among his many other duties.
It’s crucial, Robinson says, to let the families know the university is investing in them and that U-M is committed to making itself as accessible as possible for people of all backgrounds. That, in turn, lends itself to the creation of communities within communities.
“We have students who attend schools in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Lincoln, Van Buren and elsewhere, and they’re all here with their different daily experiences and their different backgrounds, but it’s an opportunity for them to get to see and learn from one another. As they matriculate through the program and up to college, we hope they continue to have that sense of community, learning and growing and bringing out the best in one another,” Robinson says.
“When we were new in the first year, parents and students expressed the idea that Ypsilanti — and communities like it — just need opportunities. They know their kids are bright and can do a lot of great things, but they’ve lacked things like funding for classrooms and access to certain kinds of programs. So this program shows that the university is invested in them as students and is invested in communities because we want the kids to be great and succeed.”
The community development goals closely align with those of David Anderson. During the week, Anderson is a math and physics teacher at Ypsilanti High School. On the weekends, he’s one of the high school science teachers for Wolverine Pathways.
A U-M graduate himself, he praised Wolverine Pathways for the pipeline it will inevitably create for students in the districts it serves. Often times, he says, students who want to push themselves harder aren’t afforded the opportunity because they’re bound by certain curriculums or they aren’t pushed hard enough in school.
“I like the idea that this program is available to students in the district, but it’s completely optional. You have to want to be here and it shows that all of the students here are very motivated students. They want to work and learn and stretch themselves,” Anderson says.
“Many students in districts with restricted resources don’t view the University of Michigan as an attainable goal because it can often be a financial stretch for their families or they feel like they haven’t been prepared enough in their schooling. But U-M is committed to providing opportunities to students and expanding the diversity of its student body through programs like Wolverine Pathways, so I feel like it’s not an easy road, but they can get there.”
And that’s exactly why Jagers and Davidson say this program is so important.
“University leadership has often said that there are some missing voices at the table here when it comes to the underrepresentation of certain identity-based groups,” Davidson says.
“The program gives us a chance to cultivate some bright young people who might pick this place as a space where they want to be to become the leaders and change-makers in their communities. We have to expand who’s engaged here and who benefits from the resources we have. If we can open up these doors to young people who will benefit from choosing our institution, we will all benefit from it and Wolverine Pathways is helping to make that possible.”