Battle Creek

GVSU Outreach Center in Battle Creek continues its work throughout the pandemic

Schools and universities may have closed their doors, but that hasn’t stopped the Grand Valley State University Battle Creek Regional Outreach Center from continuing its mission to offer career counseling and exploration to adults and support to area students who are considering college or technical training.

“What we do in person, we can do just as easily virtually because we’ve got video conferencing opportunities available,” says Al Shifflett, III, Director of Community Engagement for the center located at 8 West Michigan Ave. in Battle Creek.

A $15.5 million, five-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is funding the partnership between GVSU and the Battle Creek Public Schools. The collaboration focuses on a number of different aspects of educational opportunities and support, the majority of which have been put on hold because of the state-mandated Shelter in Place order.

But, Shifflett says Outreach Center staff are using technology to connect with individuals of all ages throughout the southwest Michigan region. He says people think that the services provided are only available to people within Calhoun County.

“We are available to anyone in the community or throughout the region,” he says. “The grant has provided this center and staff in order to provide advising and career exploration for any learner in our regional community, but especially for Battle Creek Public School students or adults.”

The overall focus of the Outreach Center is on preparing BCPS students for careers in science, technology, health care and education, while also offering teachers additional support and career pathways. GVSU designed a series of programs aimed at widening the region's access to education.

“We’ve got one staff member who’s reaching out to all of the school districts throughout southwest Michigan and offering up resources such as modules on scholarships and the FAFSA,” Shifflett says. “We can come in and offer advice and supplement what the counseling centers are doing.”

GVSU was selected because of previous work it had done with WKKF.

"When we learned about Battle Creek Public Schools and saw that they had some needs for different professional development and working with the students, we thought that was a good fit," Jean Nagelkerk, Vice Provost for Health at Grand Valley State University who leads the Outreach Center, said earlier.

The formal name of the collaboration is the W.K. Kellogg/BCPS/GVSU Partnership.

The team of the Battle Creek Regional Outreach Center, (Photo taken prior to social distancing orders)

“When we launched the collaboration between GVSU and BCPS, we sought to strengthen our community and bring access to new higher education options so that all children and families can thrive. We wanted to help our students grow and succeed academically, create pathways to exciting career opportunities and help build a better economic future for our entire community,” says Kim Carter, BCPS Superintendent. “Jobs in science, technology, and health care are some of the highest paying available, and there’s no question these industries will continue to grow and will need more skilled workers. BCPS was proud to collaborate with GVSU to provide students with hands-on experience in these fields to ensure they are college, career, and community ready.”

Shifflett says before the Outreach Center employees began working remotely, they were seeing more adults than students coming in for assistance, including “a gentleman in his 60’s who had a Master’s degree from GVSU who wanted help with his FAFSA form.”

As evidence of the regional nature of the program, Shifflett says the Outreach Center built a good relationship with the West Michigan Virtual Academy Michigan Online High School located at 35 Hamblin West.

“A lot of those students are first-generation college-bound or looking at technical careers and they don’t have traditional counselors to help them with career exploration. We’ve got video conferencing so they can connect with an advisor through that in a conference room.”

There also is a Study Center that would normally be open on Monday afternoons for any learner. Shifflett says students can receive advice there from the staff or sit and study. A certified teacher is there to provide direction and assistance if that’s needed, too.

Paula Lancaster, PhD., Professor of Special Education at GVSU, Co-Principal Investigator with the Partnership, works with the Outreach Center staff to ensure that students are accessing college at higher levels then they’re currently accessing.

“BCPS is very focused on ensuring that more students attend college and has been working in this direction for some time,” she says.  “What we’re doing is really supplementing their efforts.”

Opportunities to prepare for tests they have to take such as the ACT or SAT and access to career exploration are among the initiatives being undertaken to increase those levels.

“We are looking at how we can help a student who might like to join the education workforce or show them the options available and it’s the same thing on the healthcare side, but also with any career exploration,” Lancaster says. “We want to show them what the possibilities are for their future.”

Because many of these students may be the first in their family to go to college or pursue technical education, Lancaster says there are unfamiliar procedural and practical issues these students and their families must work through, including college applications and selecting a field of study. She says the process of applying to college seems a little more complicated now.

“The choices and options are a little bit greater,” Lancaster says, citing decisions about a course of study, a more complicated and ever-changing workforce, and what a career pathway might look like.

“For first-generation families navigating these large, complex institutions can be challenging. We’re simplifying those processes.” 

Shifflett says it’s really about helping students find out what they don’t know. If the family support isn’t there to understand timelines and deadlines or steps and processes in financial aid, his staff will let students and families know what they could be missing out on and will work with them to find a career that best suits the needs of the student.

“We share with them what careers are out there and what that career entails,” Shifflett says. “We tell them that if you like computers, there are jobs you can do in healthcare and if you like to build things, maybe you could go into bioengineering.

“We have increased efforts to extend our services to families so they know what the steps and processes are if they want to gain further education.”

Learning at the sHaPe (Summer Health Activities and Professions Exploration) Camp. (Photo taken prior to social distancing orders)
Lancaster says her initial conversations about the work that would take place at the Outreach Center were focused on high school students, but she says anyone in the community or the region who might be interested in a change in employment or career pathways is welcome and encouraged to begin coming in again once social distancing is lifted.

“I think one of the wonderful things about the people who work at the Outreach Center is that they’re from this area and they know the community well and they’re very thoughtful about the culture and language of residents,” Lancaster says. “We can think about it (different cultures and languages) as a barrier and challenge, but this place needs to exercise a lot of care and thoughtfulness. This is an opportunity for us all to learn more about our community.”

She says there’s a willingness to find ways to continue to serve the community and the region and share information even though the physical office is closed for the time being.

Their work is “understanding what the community needs and wants in terms of career pathways and growth and development and beginning service areas around those topics,” Lancaster says. “It’s what’s really relevant to the community and how can we support that.”

Under normal circumstances
In addition to seeking out partnerships that will provide additional educational resources, Shifflett also is reaching out to employers and human resource departments throughout the area to identify where the gaps are and find ways to fill them.

“We want to create a pipeline with employers. Prior to the Executive Orders asking people to stay home and stay safe, employers were desperately seeking that pipeline,” he says.

Lancaster, who oversees most of the projects on the education side while Nagelkerk oversees the health education side and the Outreach Center, says a new teacher mentoring program and a mentoring project focused on project-based learning are among her focuses in normal times. 

As part of the teacher mentoring project, Lancaster works with BCPS and 24 new teachers hired into the district to pair them with mentors who provide more personal support. These mentors include faculty members from GVSU’s College of Education.

“Mentors meet with each teacher 20 to 24 times over the school year for two to three hours at a time,” Lancaster says. “These teachers also are enrolled in course work at GVSU.”

Project-Based Learning provides professional development to secondary-grade teachers as they work with their students. Lancaster says this form of learning and engaging middle and high school students in interesting projects that are then shared with a public audience.

“It's an interdisciplinary approach to teaching in which teachers transform curriculum into a project to be developed to address a problem to be solved,” Lancaster says. “Oftentimes a project will revolve around something that’s local. It might be that they’re suggesting a new program that needs to be developed or a park in town that needs to be worked on. They invite stakeholders to come in and hear about the potential projects they’re suggesting.

“It’s a win-win for students and the community. Not only do students have a greater sense of ownership, but they’re also seeing how the curriculum connects to the world around them.”

Even though students have the opportunity to explore all types of careers, Shifflett says a major focus of the GVSU/BCPS collaboration is on preparing students for careers in health education and STEM. GVSU faculty members, with GVSU's Allied Health and Education departments, are instructing students at Battle Creek Central High School who are dual-enrolled and able to earn college credit.

“GVSU has decided that for students who decide to pursue a degree in education, they will offer full-ride scholarships for some students at Battle Creek Central High School,” Shifflett says. The scholarships are also being made available to those pursuing a degree in education.

To get students in middle school engaged, weeklong camps were going to be offered this summer that focus on careers in areas such as healthcare, engineering, and education. Those camps have been put on hold as have so many other programs.

But, Shifflett says he wants people to know that the Outreach Center is open for business and ready to help.

“We’re serving learners in this community and the region. We can’t sit idle,” he says.
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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.