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Failed Once, Failed Twice, Passed with Project GRAD

Project Access Helps PA “Threepeaters” Complete 9th Grade

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA. FEBRUARY 15, 2012. They had failed ninth grade not once, but twice. Counselors intervened. Teachers stayed for summer school. Still, for one group of Pennsylvania ninth graders, dropout seemed a likely next step.

“We proposed a college residential program for these kids,”explains Dr. Nikia Owens, GRAD’s Associate Vice President for College Access. “If they missed half the school days in the regular year, they probably wouldn’t go to regular summer school. Instead, we offered nine intensive days, with 14 hours a day of instruction – 7 hours in one subject, 7 hours in the other. The students had the chance to walk away with two credits.”

Project Access created an intensive college-like atmosphere that helped three cohorts of Pennsylvania 9th graders pass their subjects, at last.

“If they missed half the school days in the regular year,
they probably wouldn’t go to regular summer school.
Instead, we offered nine intensive days.”

– Dr. Nikia Owens
Associate Vice President, College Access
Project GRAD USA

The Lancaster School District reached out to GRAD to see what might be done to help these “three-peaters” meet requirements for ninth grade and move on. GRAD was already working with the district through a statewide college access initiative, the PA College Access Challenge Grant.

Millersville University agreed to host this program on their campus for eight days of instruction, with testing on days 8 and 9. Following the spirit of GRAD summer institutes, the university campus would foster a 360-degree community of learning and offer the students a glimpse of what the future might hold – if they completed ninth grade.

The district superintendent and principal of JP and East McClaskey High School agreed to allow GRAD to invest in the program through the College Access Challenge Grant, but expressed doubts that GRAD would succeed where others had failed. A successful program would have to follow the district’s curriculum, find certified teachers, and prepare students to pass a district-approved test in their subjects, for instance English 1 and Algebra 1.

Cutting to the punchline, the program worked – not once but three times, with a third full cohort of students completing the program in June 2011. Several of those students have since gone on to graduate from high school. Why had GRAD succeeded where other programs had failed?

Secrets to Success

1. Persistent recruitment.

The first challenge was reaching the students. The first summer, to register 12 students, GRAD’s lead academic consultant at Lancaster, Dr. Carol Welsh, placed approximately 150 phone calls to parents. She also visited each student’s home. On the first day of the program, each of the 12 registered students appeared in the early morning, accompanied by a parent.

2. Personal commitment.

Dr. Welsh took heroic measures to ensure that students progressed from the GRAD program to the district’s summer school, allowing each to enter 10th grade. In addition to her tireless recruitment efforts, she paid for the students’ registration in the district summer school out of her own pocket.

3. Environment “conducive to learning.”

“The program is contained, it’s residential, it keeps them in the mindset of school,” says Dr. Owens. “It’s only eight days, but it’s safe, it’s secure, it’s an environment conducive to learning.”

4. Keep it Moving.

Teachers incorporated kinesethetic learning methods to keep students engaged over the long 14-hour day. They wrote math equations on a beach ball and threw it around the university swimming pool, requiring the receiver to solve. At any given moment in the classroom, half the students were seated and half were involved in movement.


Thus far, after three consecutive summer programs in Lancaster, every single student has passed the district-approved subject tests. Two graduates of Project Access were invited to describe the program to the Pennsylvania State Board of Education in May, 2011. Currently, the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State is in the process of conducting a formal evaluation of Project Access, due for completion in Spring, 2012.

“‘Oh my God, I see them!
They’re graduating with their class!'”

— Dr. Carol Walsh
Senior Academic Consultant,
Project GRAD USA

For GRAD staff, the results are more personal. In May 2011, Dr. Owens and Dr. Walsh attended McClaskey High School graduation, three years after launching GRAD’s intervention for three-peaters. They looked for their one-time ninth graders, who had come to GRAD with no credits after two years of ninth grade.

“Carol was working the graduating door, we were just holding our breaths, we thought, we don’t know. And she said, ‘Oh my God, I see them! They’re graduating with their class!’ It was such an exciting moment.”