BLUE ASH, Ohio -- Norwood High School and University of Cincinnati Blue Ash had high hopes when they landed a grant to help shepherd students into a successful college career.
Two years later, the project is bearing fruit.
More students are applying to college and attending UC Blue Ash and other colleges.
At Norwood’s 2015 College Signing Day, 63 seniors participated, including 14 who attended UC Blue Ash.
One year later, 79 seniors participated, including 23 who attended UC Blue Ash.
It's a big leap for Norwood graduates since 81 percent of students in grades 7-12 have parents who did not graduate from college. That means a majority of students have to lean on high school teachers and counselors for much of the information they need to allay their anxieties about college and to know what's coming.
They're being guided toward college and mentored while attending through Ohio's Gear Up grant. Norwood is one of four Ohio districts that won a seven-year, $24.5 million federal grant that is paying for mentoring, counseling and a host of services to middle school and high school students who come from low-income families or would be first-generation college students.
Teachers are benefiting, too, through partnering with UC professors to align what is being taught in high school with what is expected in college and by sharing stories of obstacles that students face.
Norwood English teachers and an intervention specialist visited UC Blue Ash Tuesday to meet with college English professor counterparts. They left the half-day of interaction looking energized.
"I think we found a lot of common ground," said Tim Ruoff, who teaches AP English at Norwood as well as composition courses at Cincinnati State. "We found we were already doing a lot of good things to help prepare students for college, and we found things to solidify regarding expectations."
Ruoff offered the example that he plans to give students a choice when it comes to writing styles in the future. Until now, he required students to use the MLA Style Manual for writing assignments. But he learned that students going into psychology will need to learn the American Psychological Association style. He'll let students decide.
Big and small impediments to success cleared away
Last year, math teachers visited and learned that their students could not use calculators while taking the UC Blue Ash entrance exam, even though computers are allowed for Ohio standardized math tests.
Little differences like this one and knowing about them can mean a lot, said Donald Deems, who teaches junior and senior English at Norwood.
"Some of our best students can be shackled by the no-calculator rule," he said, if they go in unprepared.
Students who excel at advanced math now review doing arithmetic, multiplication and division on paper to ward off bad grades.
The high school teachers emphasized how much their recent graduates whose families have little or no experience with higher education leaned on them for support while they started college.
"We're kind of those training wheels for the first semester," said Deems, who often helps recent graduates with their first one or two college papers.
They typically gain enough confidence to stop asking for his help by the second semester, he said.
Gear Up offers more than teacher support, including scholarships for all Norwood students who enter any accredited college. Payments for UC Blue Ash are $1,200, and scholarships to other institutions are larger or smaller depending on the length the degree or certification program.
Libby Anthony, who teaches composition at UC Blue Ash, was already aware that her students typically had many obligations outside of schoolwork. But she learned from the Norwood teachers that the same pressures apply to their teenaged students.
"They have such complicated lives out of school: working, taking care of family, including siblings. They have to juggle a lot," Anthony said.
To keep students on track regardless of those challenges, Gear Up offers monthly counseling to students on top of standard counseling offered by UC, according to Maureen Heintz, Gear Up site director.
She tries to solve problems as quickly as they arise. When she discovered that some students were deciding not to submit completed applications when they discovered the $50 fee, she reached out to UC Blue Ash, which waived the fee for Norwood students.
When one student checked too many boxes and signed up for more loans than he needed, UC worked to untangle the mess.
"We reach out as much as we can," Heintz said.
Susan Sipple, chairwoman of UC Blue Ash's English department, said the collaboration is helping students to succeed.
"This exchange is particularly great. We work so hard to figure out what our students need," Sipple said. "Sometimes the missing piece is what's going on in high school."