Leveraging Innovation for College Readiness

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Innovative programs don’t spontaneously hatch. Great ideas coupled with great effort, planning, and support are needed for an innovative idea to lead to life-changing programming. This was true for the West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology (WMCAT), thanks to support through a grant from the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN). With MCAN’s goals to make college accessible for all and WMCAT’s mission to provide opportunities for individuals to make social and economic progress in their lives, it was a natural fit to join forces to provide further opportunities for college readiness in West Michigan.

WMCAT originally connected to MCAN through its Local College Access Network (LCAN) under the umbrella of KConnect in Kent County. With support from MCAN, we continued a program called Prep Year to benefit high school students, and created Step Year as a pilot program phase for postsecondary young adults looking to take that next step toward college.

Our goal for Prep Year and Step Year during 2016-2017 was to increase social, academic and employment skills; provide support toward college graduation; and foster preparation for postsecondary opportunities.

Prep Year

Prep Year is part of WMCAT’s nationally-recognized Teen Arts + Tech Program that engages 130-160 high school students from Grand Rapids Public Schools annually in an after-school program that connects creativity, civic engagement and college and career success through studio experiences.

Prep Year supports a college-going culture through activities and experiences including: workshops on financial aid, access to an on-site admissions counselor, college visits, WMCAT staff and instructor support of students throughout the college exploration and application process, career-related field trips and guest speakers, and a partnership with College 101 founder, Dr. Paul Hernandez.

“As a high school student, I was limited to exposure outside of my school,” shared former Prep Year and WMCAT teen student, Joshua Peoples. “I don’t think I would have chosen my major if I hadn’t gone to WMCAT in the first place. Generally, minorities don’t lean toward careers like programming, but it gave me more options to choose from. That exposure was key for me.”

Prep Year surfaced some solid stats in the 2016-17 year:

  • Seventy-seven percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that the Teen Arts + Tech program increased their desire to stay in high school.
  • Eighty percent of students indicated that their experience increased their interest in attending college.
  • Ninety percent of seniors who participated at WMCAT in the 2016-2017 program year graduated from high school on time.
  • Of those who graduated, 100 percent applied to college or another postsecondary option.

We also learned a few things along the way. Prep Year originally targeted high school seniors; however, we learned that seniors are really busy with extracurricular activities and college prep. Therefore, we revamped some programs to include grades 10 and 11, while including family activities around financial aid.

Step Year

The Step Year program engages young adults in postsecondary opportunities while providing a work experience. We hired eight young adult apprentices, all of whom were graduates of our teen arts program to work in Ambrose, a commercial screen printing business through WMCAT’s social enterprise program. The young adults earned a regular wage while learning how to run a small business and receiving extensive mentoring and support toward postsecondary opportunities.

Step Year tracked college enrollment and work metrics:

  • Of our eight apprentices, six were enrolled in college during 2016-17, completing up to 25 credits.
  • Our apprentices worked a total of 2,258.5 hours.
  • Seven apprentices on payroll worked an average of 10-15 hours a week.

We also benefitted from several lessons that will help us re-launch in the fall of 2018:

  • Time and resources to navigate the financial aid process were greater than anticipated.  
  • More time needs to be spent with participants exploring options to better prepare them for a postsecondary pathway.
  • We need to find the balance of maintaining a profitable commercial screen printing business while keeping eight novice employees on staff.

Overall, WMCAT will continue programming for Prep Year and re-launch Step Year this fall with additional staff and revamped curriculum. The innovation of both WMCAT and MCAN have already led to new programming and opportunities that have greatly impacted the lives of teens and young adults in the West Michigan community.

About the West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology (WMCAT)

WMCAT was opened in 2005 as one of the first replication sites of Bill Strickland’s Manchester Bidwell model from Pittsburgh, WMCAT has inspired and empowered hundreds of adults and teens to pursue new opportunity pathways, leading to income security for families and postsecondary success for young adults. Our three programmatic initiatives are an adult career-training program that moves under- and un-employed adults into living wage careers in healthcare support services; a teen arts and technology after-school program that connects urban high school students to studios in visual arts, media arts and technology; and two social enterprises, a commercial screen-printing business employing young adult apprentices, and a design-thinking consultancy.


Author: Jenny Griffen, Development and Communications Manager
West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology

Posted: August 7, 2018


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