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Academic mentoring helps Superior students gear up for learning

Jake Zatko, a sixth-grader at Superior Middle School, gets help on some homework from Jordan Buhr, a student from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, at the middle school. Buhr and other UWS students in the GEARS program help the middle school students with homework, projects and missing classwork. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

When the final school bell rings bringing the day to an end, students are smiling ear to ear and stuffing their textbooks into their backpacks, eagerly running out the door. However, the day isn’t over for all of them.

“I have to go to GEARS today,” said sixth-grader Berkley Freund. “I have to finish my homework right after school.”

A number of Superior Middle School students will stay after school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for the Gain Early Awareness and Readiness program. Launched in January 2010, it brings 29 students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior to help more than 30 Superior Middle School students with their missing classwork, homework, book projects and presentations. Many of the UWS students major in social work or education. They participate in GEARS because they want to be involved with the school and gain hands-on work experience.

“Students can catch up in reading, English, math and a variety of other subjects,” said Marshall Disrude, GEARS coordinator. “It’s a lot of fun and it has definitely made a positive difference for everyone. The UWS students are role models for the kids.”

Teachers refer students to the program based on failing grades or other risk factors. The goal is to help at-risk students prepare and attend high school, enable them to succeed academically, and increase retention and graduation rates through to college.

“This is one of the original mentorship programs in Superior,” Disrude said. “The students and the program have come a long way since the beginning.”

On a recent Thursday, the large sixth-grade classroom was alive with activity. A few students were in groups reading books while some were bouncing off the wall with energy.

UWS sophomore mentor Jordan Buhr, 19, calmed the class down and got the students to do their work.

“This class can get pretty hectic on Thursdays,” Buhr said. “I feel some of them push the limits because they are at the age. Everyone respects everyone for the most part though, and we all typically get along.”

Sixth-graders Angelina Butler, 12, and Berkley Freund, 11, were working on a writing assignment in the corner. Buhr helped them answer questions and quizzed them on the subject matter.

“My favorite part of GEARS is Jordan being here,” Butler said. “She is one of the best mentors you could have.”

Butler and Freund said they felt their first year in the GEARS program went well.

“I definitely think it has been successful, it helped us all,” Freund said. “Plus I like that we get snacks and free time after we finish our work.”

This is also Buhr’s first year as a GEARS mentor. She said it was a great experience and that she learned a lot from the students.

“Overall my year has been really cool,” Buhr said. “They definitely keep me on my toes. I love coming here every day and helping the students.”

The eighth-grade classroom is a lot smaller than the sixth-grade classroom. Students mostly worked on math problems such as fractions, decimals and word problems.

“I will keep all of my notes with me next year for high school,” eighth-grader Violet Cross said. “I went from having low grades to having higher grades.”

UWS junior mentor Emily Noble, 20, has been with the program for nearly three years. She used to participate in after-school programs when she was in middle school, so she does her best to stress the importance of school and earning good grades to the students.

“I just want them to understand the importance of school,” Noble said. “I didn’t always take school seriously when I was their age. I want them to work hard and continue their education far beyond the eighth grade.”

“Emily is so awesome; she is like a twin sister,” Cross said. “She helped me improve my math skills. Plus I have fun talking to her.”

UWS senior mentor Brooke Vonasek, 23, said she learns a lot about herself when she works with the eighth-graders.

“I think every college student should try a semester of being a mentor,” Vonasek said. “It gives you a good perspective and the students are really appreciative of you. Not to mention you learn a lot about yourself and your abilities.”

Teachers and staff members say GEARS is extremely beneficial, and that they see the students making significant, positive changes.

“The mentors do a good job reaching out to the students,” said Sarah Bianchet, Math teacher and GEARS coordinator. “The kids really respect the mentors. The mentors teach them if they believe in themselves then they can succeed.”

Sixth-grade language arts teacher Melissa Isabella said she notices a great difference in the kids’s work ethic and behavior.

“The mentors play a huge part of the program’s success,” Isabella said. “Grades rise, participation increases … it’s all-around a wonderful system.”

Superior Middle School and UWS officials hope GEARS will continue again next year. But right now, the school is looking for more money.

The grant that pays for GEARS expires at the end of June. Great Lakes, the agency that provided the grant, will shift its focus to high school programming, so GEARS does not qualify for another grant from them.

“We are working on coming up with ways to keep the program running; a lot of it will depend on if there are funds available at the end of the budget cycle,” Disrude said.

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