There’s something about the University of Michigan that inspires the best in its students. Just ask Ross Chanowksi, a Public Policy junior who has been working on creating a campus group to help high school students in Detroit since his freshman year.
Chanowski’s organization, Letters to Success, matches University students with high school students in the Detroit-metro area for eight-week ACT tutoring sessions. The program is endorsed by the University’s School of Education and is now wrapping up its first full semester of operation.
The project is currently serving some juniors at Willow Run High School in Ypsilanti.
Chanowski got the idea to start the program while he worked with a student in Detroit as part of a class he took his freshman year.
“I thought, wow, this kid is really intelligent,” Chanowski said. “But, he had no grammatical structure and would have gotten a zero on the essay test of the ACT and he really didn’t have any method of learning basic math that you needed to get into college and do well on the ACT.”
Because of the success University students have had in the college process and their previous success on standardized tests, Chanowski said he believed that University students could give back by helping disadvantaged youth do just as well in their application processes.
Letters to Success is different from many of the other student organizations on campus. Chanowski said there won’t be a table for the group at this year’s Festifall and donors to the program privately fund the group. Typically, the cost for a student to take a prep course or hire a tutor to study for the ACT is around $2,000. But Chanowski said his group is tutoring 40 students for a total of $4,000.
There is also an application process for prospective tutors.
“I think what makes us really unique is that we are in no way a résumé padder,” Chanowski said. “We screen students in the beginning, there’s an application process. We don’t want anyone who’s coming here just to put that they helped disadvantaged kids or helped minorities in getting into college, we want kids who actually want to see social justice, who want to see change before their eyes and that’s why I think we’re so successful.”
Chanowski said another factor that makes the group different from others on campus is its partnership with the School of Education. Chanowski worked with School of Education Dean Deborah Ball and Assistant Dean Henry Meares to create the program.
Students in the course Education 118 can also participate in the organization and earn extra credit in the class for their contribution. Every student is also given an application to join the group as part of the course materials.
In the future, Letters to Success may be a required class component.
“We’re providing an opportunity that’s really a win-win because the undergraduates are getting a really direct experience with what it looks like to try to help somebody else learn, which is the kind of thing I want the students to be learning,” Ball said. “At the same time, they are doing something that’s really useful for the high school students who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to get that kind of preparation for college exams.”
In order to qualify for free ACT tutoring, Willow Run High School students only need junior standing and a commitment that they will attend every weekly tutoring session. Additionally, if they show a certain amount of improvement over the course their tutoring, the ACT registration fee will be paid for.
“These are students who don’t have access to any of the things that a lot of Michigan undergrads do have access to when they are taking the SAT or ACT,” Ball said.
School of Education junior Becky Thiel said that she joined the group because she wanted to volunteer and thought Letters to Success “felt like a really fun program.”
She said the program makes it easy for University students to become ACT tutors by having accepted students attend an orientation with a Kaplan instructor and use a Kaplan ACT book as a curriculum for University students to follow with their high school students.
“In order to be really responsible, when we have University students working with high school students, particularly kids who haven’t done well in school and haven’t been served well by schools, we want to make sure that what they’re doing is really good quality,” Ball said. “We wouldn’t want someone going out and tutoring and then getting kids mixed up.”
Thiel, who also mentored kids while she was a high school student, said watching the improvement of the student she’s working with has only made her more excited about the program.
“It’s been really great to see him improve, especially in reading comprehension,” Thiel said. “He was struggling with that a lot in the beginning so just to see how much he improved just over eight weeks was really encouraging.”
Kate Brierty, another tutor and a junior in the Organizational Studies concentration, said that her student had improved over the eight weeks as well. She also said one of the most important things about the program was that the high school students not only gained a tutor but also a confidant.
“One of the things that’s really great about the program is since we are seeing the students every week they have someone they can go to with questions about ACT and with general questions about life as well,” she said.
Brierty said because her student has become more confident about taking the ACT, he’s begun considering opportunities he wouldn’t have considered before.
“My student said that he wants to end up going to law school,” she said. “But he is looking at schools in New York now because he’s always wanted to move to New York and now he feels like he actually could go to school at one of them. He’s just a lot more confident about his ability to go to college.”
Ball said that an additional advantage of the program, aside from the effects of the tutoring, is the exposure that the high school students get to University students.
“A side benefit is that students, a lot of whom may be from families where nobody’s gone to college before, have a relationship during the semester with someone who’s a University of Michigan student and can begin to imagine themselves as somebody who can go to Michigan or who can go to college,” Ball said.