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Education

More Than a Head Start

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

The new $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield is focused on education, obviously, but parental involvement and workforce development are key focal points within its broad mission.

Mary Walachy calls it “Head Start on steroids.”

It’s a term she has called upon often, actually, when speaking to individuals and groups about Educare, an innovative model for high-quality early education that’s coming to Springfield next year — only the 24th such center in the country, in fact.

“You have to work with a Head Start partner. That’s a requirement in every Educare site across the country,” said Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, one of the lead partners in the effort to launch the local Educare school. “The base program meets the Head Start national requirements. But then there’s a layer of extensive higher quality. Instead of two adult teachers in the classroom, there needs to be three. Instead of a six-hour day, there needs to be eight or 10. There are higher ratios of family liaisons to families.”

Then there are the elements that Educare centers have really honed in on nationwide: Parental involvement and workforce development — and the many ways those two concepts work together.

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful,” Walachy said. “However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

The takeaway? Early-education programs must engage parents in their children’s learning, which is a central tenet to Educare. But the second reality is that families often need assistance in other ways — particularly Head Start-eligible families, who tend to be in the lower economic tier.

“We must assist them to begin the trajectory toward financial security,” Walachy said, and Holyoke Chicopee Springfield (HCS) Head Start has long done this by recruiting and training parents, in a collaborative effort with Holyoke Community College, to become classroom assistants, who often move up to become teachers. In fact, some 40% to 50% of teachers in HCS Head Start are former Head Start mothers.

“So they already have a model, but after we get up and running, we want to put that on a bit of a steroid as well,” she noted. That means working with the Federal Reserve’s Working Cities program, in partnership with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to steer Head Start and Educare families onto a pathway to better employment opportunities. “It’s getting on a trajectory for employment and then, we hope, financial security and success for themselves and their families.”

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful. However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

She noted that early education evolved decades ago as a workforce-support program, offering child care so families could go to work or go to school. “We’ve shifted in some ways — people started saying, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t just child care, this is education. We are really putting them on a pathway.’ But now we’ve got to circle back and do both. Head Start was always an anti-poverty program. More recently, it’s really started focusing on employment and financial security for families.”

By making that dual commitment to parent engagement and workforce training, she noted, the organizations supporting the Educare project in Springfield are making a commitment to economic development that lifts families — and, by extension, communities. And that makes this much more than a school.

Alone in Massachusetts

The 24th Educare school in the U.S. will be the only one in Massachusetts, and only the second in New England, when it opens next fall at 100 Hickory St., adjacent to Brookings School, on land provided by Springfield College.

The $14 million project was designed by RDg Planning & Design and is being built by Western Builders, with project management by O’Connell Development Group.

Mary Walachy

Mary Walachy says that while it’s important to educate young children, it’s equally important that they go home to strong families.

Educare started with one school in Chicago and has evolved into a national learning network of schools serving thousands of children across the country. An early-education model designed to help narrow the achievement gap for children living in poverty, Educare Springfield is being funded locally by a variety of local, state, and national sources including the Davis Foundation, the Gage Olmstead Fund and Albert Steiger Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the MassMutual Foundation, Berkshire Bank, MassDevelopment, the MassWorks Infrastructure Program at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Florence Bank, Capital One Commercial Banking, and the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Grant Fund through the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care in collaboration with the Community Economic Development Assistance Corp. and its affiliate, the Children’s Investment Fund. A number of anonymous donors have also contributed significant funding.

Educare Springfield will offer a full-day, full-year program for up to 141 children from birth to age 5, under licensure by the Department of Early Education and Care. The center will also serve as a resource in the early-education community for training and providing professional development for future teachers, social workers, evaluation, and research.

Just from the education perspective, the local need is certainly there. Three years ago, the Springfield Public Schools Kindergarten Reading Assessment scores revealed that preschool children from the Six Corners and Old Hill neighborhoods scored the lowest among city neighborhoods for kindergarten reading readiness, at 1.1% and 3%, respectively. On a broader city scale, the fall 2017 scores showed that only 7% of all city children met all five benchmarks of kindergarten reading readiness.

Research, as Walachy noted, has proven time and again that kids who aren’t kindergarten-ready are at great risk of falling further behind their peers, and these same children, if they’re not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, are significantly less likely to graduate high school, attend college, or find employment that earns them a living wage.

Breaking that cycle means engaging children and their parents — and it’s an effort that could make a multi-generational impact.

Come Together

That potential is certainly gratifying for Walachy and the other partners.

“I think we’re really fortunate that Springfield got this opportunity to bring in this nationally recognized, quality early-childhood program,” she said, adding that the Davis Foundation has been involved from the start. “There has to be a philanthropic lead partner in order to begin to explore Educare because it does require fundraising, and if you don’t have somebody already at the table, it makes it really hard to get anybody else to join the table.”

The board of Educare Springfield, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, will hold Head Start accountable for executing the expanded Educare model. Educare Springfield is also tackling enhanced programs, fundraising, and policy and advocacy work associated with the model. A $7 million endowment is also being developed, to be administered by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, revenue from which will support operating costs.

“We did not want to develop a building that we could then not pay to operate,” Walachy noted, adding that Head Start’s federal dollars will play a significant role as well. “We want to develop a program kids in Springfield deserve. They deserve the best, and we think this is one of the best, and one this community can support.

“No one argues that kids should have a good experience, and that they begin learning at birth,” she went on. “But nothing good is cheap. And I will tell you that Educare isn’t cheap. But it sends a policy message that you’ve got to pay for good programs if you want good outcomes.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Culture Shock

Emily Rabinsky guides two HCC students in a lab project.

Emily Rabinsky guides two HCC students in a lab project.

As she walked BusinessWest through one of the brand-new labs in Holyoke Community College’s Center for Life Sciences, Professor Emily Rabinsky said there’s plenty for students to appreciate.

“Our old lab space was very outdated and not very conducive to learning,” said Rabinsky, who coordinates the Biotechnology program at HCC. “There were two long bays with a tall shelf in between that made it very difficult for the students to see what the lecturer was referring to, and the equipment was very outdated.”

Not so today.

“At our recent open house, some students happened to walk by, peeked in, and said, ‘wow, this is amazing,’” she said. “I think this facility could rival many of the four-year colleges.”

Take, for example, the only certified cleanroom at any Massachusetts community college, and one of very few at any college or university in Western Mass.

Once it’s fully operational, the cleanroom will have a certification rating of ISO 8, which means air quality of no more than 100,000 particles per cubic foot. Inside the cleanroom, there will be a hooded biosafety cabinet where the sterility will increase to ISO 7, or no more than 10,000 particles per cubic foot.

“It’s pretty unique at the community-college level,” Rabinsky told BusinessWest. “It’s something commonly used in many of the life-science research areas. Students will learn how to minimize contamination and keep the space sterile for any kinds of cells they’re working with.”

Take, for example, a class she’s currently developing called “Cell Culture and Protein Purification,” which will make copious use of the cleanroom.

“We’ll be training students in the cell-culture class in how to maintain mammalian cell cultures, because they can be easily contaminated with bacteria or other microbes that are in the air,” she explained. “Mammalian cell cultures are commonly used in any kind of research studying cancer, or studying new drug therapies, so it’s a good skill to know.”

The cleanroom will also be utilized as a training facility for area professionals — for instance, in how to monitor the air for microbial content, commonly known as particle count.

“In a cleanroom, there should be fewer particles in the air because we have a special kind of filtration. So it has to constantly be monitored and verified,” she said. “Any cleanroom at UMass or any kind of industry has that monitoring done for them, so if someone wants to go into that kind of field, they could get that training here.”

So, while students are being trained in laboratory settings similar to what they will experience in industry, making them more competitive for the biotech job market, Rabinsky said, HCC serves a local workforce-development mission by training non-students as well.

“A lot of these local biotech companies that do this kind of work, they find it can be very costly for them to train new employees at their facility, and at the same time, they’re risking contaminating their facilities with these new workers that are just learning the technique, so why not do it here where it’s not such a high risk?”

On the Cutting Edge

HCC recently staged a grand-opening ceremony for the 13,000-square-foot, $4.55 million Center for Life Sciences, located on the lower level of HCC’s Marieb Building. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center awarded HCC a $3.8 million grant for the project, which was supplemented by $750,000 from the HCC Foundation’s Building Healthy Communities Campaign, which also paid for the construction of the college’s new Center for Health Education on Jarvis Avenue in Holyoke.

“Those grants outfitted the biotechnology program but also all of the programs that fit in around it, including microbiology, general biology, and genetics,” Rabinsky said, noting that the new space includes two labs, the cleanroom, a prep room, and a lecture area.

Grant funds and donations also paid for new equipment, including a high-end, research-grade fluorescent microscope, like those used in the pharmaceutical industry; a micro volume spectrophotometer, used to measure small amounts of genetic material; and an electroporator, for genetic engineering. Meanwhile, a cutting-edge thermocycler can take a small sample of DNA and make billions of copies in an hour.

About half of Rabinsky’s students are interested in going into biotechnology, with most of those specifically interested in medical biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, as well as medical devices, an industry with strong roots in Western Mass. and the Boston area.

“I also have students who are just interested in the life sciences, interested in research, and just want to be exposed to all the different areas of biotechnology,” she went on. “A lot of these skills can be applied to many different fields. They may be interested in going into genetics, for example. I would say one of the challenges is drawing in the kids in who may not have thought about biotechnology or biology.”

To that end, in her introductory biotechnology course, she incorporates activities that students can relate to their everyday lives.

“Last week, we did a fun lab where he tested for the presence of genetic modification in things like cheese fries and Cheetos,” she explained. “Food producers aren’t required to list the presence of GMOs unless it’s above a certain percentage. So they’ll grind it up, extract the DNA, and test for the presence of GMOs. That was fun — they could have a hands-on experience and test for something that is very commonplace that we’re all aware of.”

Important Evolution

Rabinsky admitted some might not see the new center as a necessity since HCC already had a functioning facility upstairs, but said it was important to keep the college on the cutting edge and attract more students to give the life sciences a look.

“This makes them excited about the field, and it’s more a conducive space for learning, with these small tables that make working in groups much easier. Then we have newer technologies and new equipment to train students on, which are very similar to what they’ll in the field.”

Of course, it all starts with the instruction, and on that front, Rabinsky said the Center for Life Sciences will continue to prepare students to enter what is certainly a growing field from a jobs perspective.

“I’ve had students that have gone on to UMass and said that they learned things here they haven’t learned there, and that our equipment properly prepared them for graduate research,” she said. “That’s really nice to hear.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

The New College Try

Diane Prusank

Diane Prusank

Diane Prusank says Westfield State University is a few years behind the other Massachusetts state schools in adopting the so-called ‘college structure’ for its Division of Academic Affairs.

In most respects, that’s a good thing, she told BusinessWest, because it has provided the 180-year-old institution with an opportunity to learn from what those other schools have done and shape a system that reflects what amounts to best practices. And that’s important, because going from 25 academic departments to four colleges is a significant change for students and faculty alike.

“It takes time for people to see how this works, time for people to talk with those at other institutions and say, ‘how did this go for you?’” said Prusank, who last spring was named WSU’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “So, in some ways, coming later than our sister institutions was really beneficial.”

Elaborating, she noted that the delay, if it can be called that, in adopting this structure resulted from, among other things, apprehension that it might create silos at the university at a time when greater collaboration between the departments was and is the goal, as well as an additional (and perhaps unwanted) layer of bureaucracy.

But over the course of a 15-month planning period — one that included examination of what’s happened at the other state universities and other institutions of higher learning after they adopted the college system — it was determined that these fears were mostly unfounded.

In fact, that review showed the college structure fostered greater communication among faculty members within various programs, and also new collaborative efforts.

Jennifer Hanselman

Jennifer Hanselman

Juline Mills

Juline Mills

Emily Todd

Emily Todd

Once you place faculty essentially in proximity to each other in the kinds of meetings and events that colleges put together, they create a chemistry with each other that you don’t see when they’re spread out across 25 different departments,” said Prusank, who joined the university in 2008 as dean of Academic Programs and Accreditation.

“When there are eight of them in the room, they start to talk about things they have in common,” she went on. “And they start to create connections. Sometimes people worry that when you create the college system you’ve made silos, that these colleges will separate themselves from each other. But the truth is that those deans have conversations with other, and they make connections.”

Under the new system, WSU now has four colleges — the College of Graduate and Continuing Education, the College of Mathematics and Sciences; College of Education, Health, and Human Services; and College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

Three new founding deans were also appointed in June: Jennifer Hanselman, former chair of the Department of Biology, was appointed interim dean of the College of Mathematics and Sciences; Juline Mills, most recently a professor in the College of Business at the University of New Haven, was named dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Services; and Emily Todd, former chair of the Department of English at WSU, was named interim dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

As for Prusank, she brings a great deal of experience to her new role as provost and vice president of Academic Affairs — and the process of bringing the college system to fruition.

Before coming to WSU a decade ago, she served as a faculty member, associate dean, and assistant provost at the University of Hartford. At Westfield State, in addition to her work as dean of Academic Programs and Accreditation, she’s served as dean of Undergraduate Studies, chair and faculty member in the Department of Communications, and chief of staff in the President’s Office.

Thus, she brings a number of different perspectives to the shift from 25 departments to four colleges. And from the lens of both a faculty member and administrator, she said it brings with it considerable promise for enhanced collaboration and innovation, as well as greater operational efficiencies.

“You get a lot of points of sharing that you didn’t have before,” she said, referring, again, to what happens when you bring the chairs of eight departments together for meetings of the individual colleges. “You get a lot of synergy, a lot of collaboration, and a lot of sharing. And that’s great for our students because it opens up more opportunities for them.”

Elaborating on the nature of these opportunities, she said they come in many different forms, from greater collaboration on curriculum and potential new programs of study to creation of new events, to the broadening of existing events, such as alumni gatherings, which might now involve graduates of several different (but related) programs instead of one.

“You get a lot of points of sharing that you didn’t have before. You get a lot of synergy, a lot of collaboration, and a lot of sharing. And that’s great for our students because it opens up more opportunities for them.”

“There’s synthesis and collaboration that opens doors for students that might not have been there before,” she explained.

Prusank told BusinessWest that a shift to the ‘college’ format is something that’s been under consideration at the university for some time.

“Westfield State has had this conversation periodically over the past few decades, as most institutions have,” she explained. “Eventually, the college structure found its way onto college campuses across the country.”

Discussions were ongoing when Ramon Torrecilha took the helm as president in 2015, she went on, adding that he essentially took the conversation to a higher level, asking the advisory committee on academic planning to research the college format, talk with campus constituencies, look at what other schools had done, and make a recommendation on what should be done moving forward.

The eventual recommendation was to take this step, she said, adding that what followed was a lengthy implementation period involving work to determine, among other things, how many colleges would be created and the composition of each one (the specific departments). When that work was completed, searches were conducted for the deans that would lead each college, as well as for the provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.

While there will be a period of adjustment to the new system, Prusank said the many types of benefits are becoming increasingly apparent to students and faculty alike. Chief among these benefits for students is greater access to assistance when its needed.

“With the older structure, when we had a dean of Undergraduate Studies, students who had academic issues or problems would have to go to that dean, and there are 4,500 full-time undergraduate students looking for one person,” she explained. “Now, with the four-college structure, there are four different points of access; it’s easier to get that individual quicker.”

There are many other benefits to this system, she told BusinessWest, adding that, while WSU may be the last school in the state system to embrace this structure, it is already making up for lost time.

— George O’Brien

Education

A Healthy Relationship

Springfield College’s recent visitors from China

Springfield College’s recent visitors from China included, from left, Wang Di, Dr. Huang Yizhuan, Cao Xiaojie, Wang Xinran, and Li Dehua.

One side of Sue Guyer’s business card bears the Springfield College logo, address, and website, and declares that she is a doctor of physical education (DPE), is athletic-trainer-certified (ATC), and a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS).

It also notes that she is chair of Exercise Science and Sport Studies and professor and clinical education coordinator of the Athletic Training Program at the college.

On the other side, it says all or most of that — in Chinese.

And she’s far from the only one at the 133-year-old college handing out business cards also printed in that language — one of the many visible signs of a relationship between the college and businesses, educational institutions, and civic leaders in that country that goes back decades and has only grown stronger in recent years.

Indeed, Guyer has handed out her card with the Chinese version facing up on countless occasions, including several visits there, including her first, in 2008, just before the Summer Olympics were staged in Beijing.

“We took 17 students over for an academic/cultural experience,” she recalled. “And China seemed to be the perfect place to go because we were looking at sports medicine — eastern and western approaches — and we were also looking at human performance, and we have relationships with multiple institutions in China.”

“We decided that, rather than go over there all the time, we would keep our expertise here and have them come to us.”

Many of those words and phrases — including ‘academic/cultural experience’ and ‘perfect place to go’ were no doubt uttered by those participating in the very latest example of this healthy relationship, one that wrapped up last week. Springfield College’s School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation hosted 16 Chinese educators for intensive instruction in sports performance and sports medicine.

The participants, who hailed from several different cities and represented a number of institutions and businesses, received instruction and insight into everything from concussions to sport nutrition to the principles of treatment and rehabilitation during a two-week program focused on fitness, management, and leadership. For their efforts, they earned a certificate and continuing-education credits.

Sue Guyer

One side of Sue Guyer’s business card bears the Springfield College logo, address, and website, and declares that she is a doctor of physical education (DPE), is athletic-trainer-certified (ATC), and a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS

And for those participants, this was an eye-opening, valuable experience.

Cao Xiaojie (Andre), a coach with the Saipu Fitness Institute, the largest fitness-training academy in China, spoke with BusinessWest near the start of the two-week program. He said the course of study was different from that in China (we’ll hear more about that later), and it was intriguing to compare western approaches and techniques with those learned in China.

“There will be a lot that we can take home with us from this experience,” he said, adding that Springfield College was one of several stops he and two colleagues from the institute made during a six-week visit to the U.S. “And we’re also looking at possible opportunities to work with Springfield College in the future.”

Guyer told BusinessWest that Springfield College, known nationally and internationally for its many sports- and fitness-related programs, has been fielding a growing number of requests from groups in China for its educators to visit that country and make presentations.

“We were getting four or five requests a year,” she explained. “And we decided that, rather than go over there all the time, we would keep our expertise here and have them come to us. That was the main impetus for putting this summer’s program together; we couldn’t meet all the requests to go there.”

The genesis of these requests is a heightened interest in sports performance, sports medicine, nutrition, and other subjects, and a desire to learn what would still be called ‘western’ practices, strategies, and methods for teaching and learning, especially as the country gears up for the 2020 Winter Olympics, said Maura Bergan, assistant professor of Exercise Science and Sports Studies, director of the summer program, and another of those providing instruction to the visiting delegation.

“The summer has always been a popular time for Chinese professionals to come over to learn a little more about sport medicine, human performance, and strength conditioning,” she explained. “So this summer we really worked hard to create a mainstream curriculum, a summer conference or seminar symposium.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Guyer, Bergan, and some of the participants (often with help from an interpreter) to get some perspective not just on this summer’s program, but also decades of collaboration and a relationship that is healthy in every respect.

Speaking Their Language

As noted earlier, Chinese delegations visiting Springfield College to observe and learn is not exactly a recent phenomenon. In fact, Chinese students and educators have been visiting, and studying at the college for more than a century.

Maura Bergan

Maura Bergan says the curriculum for the summer program featured both theory and hands-on learning, a departure from the teaching process in China.

The origins of the relationship trace back to John Ma, a member of the Springfield College class of 1920 and graduate class of 1924. He was the first international scholar from China to visit the school, and is the founder of modern physical education in China and founder of the Chinese Sports Federation.

“We’ve had a long-standing history and relationship,” said Guyer, adding that groups have been coming to the college regularly over the past several decades.

In recent years, the college has hosted the Beijing Sports Institution’s softball team; a number of visiting coaches and educators, who would often come over for a semester at a time; the developmental hockey team; and other constituencies. And, as she mentioned earlier, the college was getting all those requests to come there.

In response to all that demand, the college decided to put together an intensive two-week summer program, one that attracted the large and diverse delegation that arrived on July 23.

Participants represented a host of institutions, including the Saipu Fitness Institute, Chengdu Sport University, the Shanghai Research Institute, the Dessy Fitness School, and the national women’s softball team.

Together, the visitors kept to a packed schedule — but one that still left time to visit Harvard, MIT, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a fast-food restaurant, and other sites of interest (remember, this is an academic/cultural experience — with instruction representing a blend of sports medicine and injury prevention and human performance).

Specific courses included:

• “The Epidemiology of Athletic Injuries,” which focused on common injuries, contact versus non-contact injuries, and other subjects;

• ‘“An Introduction to Sport Performance,”taught by Bergan, featuring everything from a tour of facilities to instruction in training, to creation of a ‘performance plan’;

• “Components of a Warmup,” focusing on such matters as mobility, soft tissue, and preparation;

• “Introduction to Performance Testing”;

• A program on Plyometrics (jump training) and explosiveness;

• “Weight Lifting Instruction”;

• A program on conditioning focused on everything from programming to energy systems; and even

• “Music & Performance.”

Much of the instruction was hands-on, said Guyer, adding that participants were given both theory (in the morning sessions) and hands-on, practical application in the afternoon classes.

“They don’t do a lot of hands-on in China — a lot of is theory and lecture,” she explained. “So they like our approach to blending the theory with the hands-on, and that’s what makes our programs so exciting for them — they get to do what they’re learning, and that’s not a traditional learning style in China.”

As an example, she cited study of concussions. In China, these professionals would learn the textbook application of concussion with regard to what they would see and do. During this summer’s program, there was a lecture, but also work in the lab, where they practiced what they would see with a concussion, how they would evaluate one, and how they would treat it.

“We allow them to practice the skills they learn in the classroom rather than just the didactic, the theory,” she explained, adding, again, that this teaching method resonates with them.
Bergan called it a “holistic approach” to teaching sports medicine and human performance.

“We decided to combine the two together, and they get a little of both,” she explained. “They get the sports-medicine side, and they get the performance side, and that’s different and unique for them.”

Participants who spoke with BusinessWest at the start of the two program, such as Dr. Huang Yizhuan, a spinal surgeon and representative of the Chengdu Sport University, said they hoped to bring home with them new insights into sports medicine and human performance.

“It has been a learning experience,” he said through an interpreter. “This is a great opportunity for me to bring sports-medicine knowledge back to China.”

Course of Action

Bergan’s business card doesn’t have all of her information in Chinese on the reverse side — yet.

Indeed, she is planning to go visit that country this fall for still another of the many exchanges that have marked the past several decades. By then, she’ll have printing on both sides of her card.

And her visit will add another chapter to a decades-long relationship that has generated an exchange of ideas and yielded real learning experiences for people in both countries.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Art of the Matter

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Gabriela Micchia with the multiplication charts created by Holyoke fourth-graders.

Forty-two years ago, Enchanted Circle Theater was born as, true to its name, a touring theater company, but its interactions in school classrooms led to a dramatic evolution of its mission. Today, the nonprofit — which works not only in theater arts, but with a whole host of creative endeavors — partners with schools and other organizations on a concept known as arts integration, which uses creativity to make education more impactful — and more fun.

As Gabriela Micchia unfolded a series of multiplication tables in the form of brightly hand-colored diagrams, she explained how they’re much more than mere teaching tools.

“They use these almost like multiplication flash cards,” she said of the Morgan School fourth-graders who created them, pointing out how the numbers connect in straight lines to create a times table for the central digit. “I just made the dots, and they connected the dots, and we talked about how to put the triangles together.”

It’s undoubtedly a more entertaining way to learn math facts than simple recitation. But the real magic happened later, when the students visited another fourth-grade class and excitedly explained how to create the charts and use them to play a math game, said Micchia, a teaching artist with Enchanted Circle Theater in Holyoke. In short, the kids became the teachers.

“It goes back to the idea of the pride they have in the knowledge they gain,” Micchia said. “As much information as they retain from an adult showing them what to do, I think sometimes it’s easier for them to understand it from another student. They see each other doing it.”

That’s a typical story for Enchanted Circle Theater, a 42-year-old, Holyoke-based nonprofit that partners with schools and other organizations to educate through the creative arts.

“It’s an immersion into creative and critical thinking around math concepts,” said Priscilla Kane Hellweg, the long-time executive artistic director. “We hear students telling their friends what they’re working on, and they care about what they’ve created because it’s their creative process. It’s a sense of ownership, so seeing their work, being able to walk by it in the hallway and share it with others, there’s a pride in accomplishment, and a sense of joy.”

It’s a model applicable not just to math, but to all school subjects — with a focus at all times on English-language communication skills.

There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

For example, Hellweg said, “we do a lot of work in social studies, where our students will research and write and then perform an original play on the Trail of Tears or immigration or the Civil War or … well, I can give you 42 years worth of content.”

Science is a big focus as well, she added, citing a program for Holyoke fifth-graders called “Where Does Your Water Go?”

“They studied the water cycle, from falling down from the sky into a sewage system into our river right down the street,” she explained. “And then we turned it into an environmental advocacy program, where the students decided what they wanted people to stop and think about, and the impact that humans have on the environment and water.”

The kids then drew pictures — such as a fish swimming amid garbage, or a mallard whose feet are entangled in a plastic six-pack ring — and accompanying slogans, which were then turned into storm-drain art at eight downtown locations. “They created awareness of the water cycle and our role in keeping our world clean.”

Enchanted Circle has, from its beginning, been a working theater, but it has long embraced artistic endeavors of every kind — dance, music, visual arts, literature, even culinary arts — as teaching tools.

“We specialize in what’s called arts integration,” Hellweg said. “And there are three basic components to it. First, it’s about academic understanding — unpacking knowledge and learning concepts and deep critical thinking. The second channel is social-emotional learning and communication and collaboration and all those 21st-century learning skills that prepare us to be engaged in the world.”

The third element, quite simply, is artistry and creativity and examining the world through the filter of creative expression. “We work with people of all ages and all abilities, and it’s about inspiring and engaging and enhancing learning. It’s about connecting people to each other, people to information, people to the world around them, and people to themselves.”

Moment of Magic

Enchanted Circle was launched in 1976 as a touring theater company, but one that had a foothold in education from early on.

“We were traveling to schools, to museums, to fairs, to libraries, bringing folk tales from around the world to life,” Hellweg said. “I’ve been here for 38 of our 42 years, and I love the performing. There’s something about that moment of magic that happens between the audience and the performer during a live performance — there’s this alchemy that happens. And I wanted to follow up on that; I wanted more contact.”

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

Patricia Kane Hellweg says students who learn through hands-on arts integration retain concepts more effectively because they have more ownership in the process.

So the theater started developing workshops related to the performances, which evolved from one-off events to a regular partnership with schools — and an expansion of the organization’s work from drama to arts integration of all kinds.

“I felt that working in the classroom with teachers and students would really bring learning to life,” she told BusinessWest. “So we are still a theater company, and we create original plays on subjects with both cultural and historical relevance. But we really became a teaching institution.”

The theater has a presence in public schools throughout Holyoke, Amherst, Northampton, and parts of Springfield, but also in affordable-housing developments, preschools, universities, and other, perhaps surprising venues.

“We work throughout the community — in the foster-care world, in the mental-health field, with adjudicated youth in detention, in homeless shelters, in housing developments — bringing arts-integrated learning to some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in the area,” Hellweg said.

Holyoke’s public schools represent Enchanted Circle’s longest-term and closest partner, as seen in offerings like the visual math programs at Morgan School and a dual-language arts-integration program with grades K-3 at Metcalf School every Friday, which touches on numerous academic subjects. “Whatever they’re working on, we are working on,” she said. “It’s hands-on, project-based, arts-integrated learning.”

And that hands-on element is critical, she noted. Typically, the ideas kids learn at school are stored in their visual memory. “But if we’re doing embodied math — where students become an isosceles triangle, or two people create a parallelogram with their arms — then it’s in your muscle memory. And it brings the joy back to learning because it’s fun, and the laughter in class is huge.”

Micchia agreed. “It becomes this whole-body experience, this holistic experience when we use the arts to create this visual math.”

And students who are having fun are more likely to want to learn, Hellweg added. “What we find is that attendance goes up because students want to be in school, and behavior issues go down because students are engaged.”

That applies even to young people who never considered themselves learners, she said, recalling a bittersweet conversation she had recently with a 15-year-old girl in juvenile detention.

“She said to us, ‘I never thought I would find joy in learning, and I’m loving learning with Enchanted Circle. I never would have dropped out of school had Enchanted Circle been in my classroom.’”

Now working on a poetry-into-performance program through the theater, funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, the girl has a new outlook on why learning can — and should — be so much more than rote memorization. “That engagement, both the physical engagement and the experience of working collaboratively and creatively, changes the learning environment.”

Micchia went further than that, saying Enchanted Circle cultivates an emotionally safe learning space.

“I feel like it creates an acceptance — you’re accepted here. You don’t have to be the best at something,” she said, adding that there’s no one set way to teach a student. “One of the beautiful things is, it’s kind of organic and flexible, and you meet the needs of the child as opposed to the other way around. It’s not a formula.”

Teaching the Teachers

Students aren’t the only ones in need of that confidence, Hellweg noted. Teachers are, too — at least when it comes to the often-unfamiliar territory of arts integration in their classrooms.

“We do a tremendous amount of training of teachers, who don’t necessarily think of themselves as artists, and often feel that they’re not creative. But, within moments of one of our professional-development programs, they realize they’re very creative, and they have a tremendous aptitude for bringing the creative process into the classroom,” she told BusinessWest. “So we’ve been working with teachers on large and small ways to integrate the arts into the classroom, and any time we’re in residence in a classroom, we’re working in partnership with the teacher and students to create something together.”

One innovative initiative, the Honors Arts Academy in Holyoke, is an afterschool program at Donahue School that focuses on rigorous arts training for students. The goal is to secure the funding to place it at Holyoke High School and bring in seventh- and eighth-graders from three city middle schools to work with freshmen at the high school.

“The ninth-grade dropout rate is a big challenge,” Hellweg said, “so it’s good to get seventh- and eighth-graders feeling not just at home in the high school, but that it’s their school, and able to use the resources at the high school, like the television studio and the theater. Most middle schools don’t have those resources.”

In all Enchanted Circle’s programs, she added, students are moving beyond passive learning and generating their own ideas, helping to craft curriculum that means something to them.

While the theater has evolved slowly over the years, Hellweg is excited about a new initiative called the Institute for Arts Integration, which will be a regional hub for training teachers, social-service case workers, administrators, and teaching artists.

“There are a couple programs around the country that are doing this, and because we’ve been pioneers in the field of arts integration, we want to create our own institute,” she said. “Our goal is to make arts integration the norm in every classroom.”

It’s a goal that gets her out of bed each morning, doing a job she has loved for almost four decades.

“You don’t stay in a job that long unless it moves you,” she said. “Every single day, I see that ‘a-ha’ moment where students are able to do something they didn’t think they could. It’s palpable — teachers are seeing their students differently, students are seeing their teachers differently. Learning comes alive, and the creative process means it’s never-ending. That’s where my inspiration comes from.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bedna[email protected]

Education Sections

Course Correction

Even her military experience repairing jet engines — work she finds intriguing — hasn’t kept Stephanie Dalton from reaching her goal of becoming a nurse.

Even her military experience repairing jet engines — work she finds intriguing — hasn’t kept Stephanie Dalton from reaching her goal of becoming a nurse.

Stephanie Dalton has wanted to be a nurse since she was 7, though it took a few intriguing detours to get there.

“I’ve always wanted to do it, and I paid for school myself,” she said of her initial enrollment in American International College six years ago. That entailed working at a series of jobs, from waitressing and babysitting to working at a sandwich shop and a horse farm.

“I was living on my own, just trying to make it, and when I got into the nursing program here, I was so excited,” she recalled. “But I struggled. I was working four jobs, I was trying to keep a roof over my head, food on the table, and trying to pay for my education, and I realized I needed to do something different because I was not going to be successful trying to work and manage school and everything else.”

That’s when Dalton decided to join the Air Force, thinking she could train for something in the medical field, but that didn’t work out. Instead, she became a jet-engine mechanic.

“I work on F-15s over at Barnes, and it’s really fun. I like it a lot,” she said, adding that she’s long had an aptitude for mechanical work. “I knew how to turn a wrench, my dad taught me how to change my own oil, I could change a tire. So I knew the basics. And I’m willing to learn — whatever they could teach me, I was willing to just learn.”

But Dalton — through many twists and turns, as we’ll see later — did find her way back to nursing, graduating last month from AIC with her bachelor’s degree.

Lauren Bennett had no such early sights on nursing; instead, she worked in banking and insurance — including a role in sales at MassMutual — for a decade before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Several years later, when her kids were starting kindergarten and second grade, respectively, she decided to pursue a career again — this time in nursing.

“I knew I didn’t want to sit in an office,” said Bennett, who earned her associate degree in nursing at Greenfield Community College in May. “That was something that I didn’t feel was making enough of an impact. There were definitely things I enjoyed about it, but I wanted a career making a positive difference in people’s lives. And I’ve always been interested in anatomy and physiology and nutrition — different aspects of healthcare.”

With nurses once again in demand across the U.S., the field has become an attractive one not only for recent high-school graduates pursing a college path, but for established professionals in other fields looking for a change. For this issue’s focus on nursing education, BusinessWest sat down with a few such women to find out why they made the switch — and where they intend to take their careers from here.

Horse Sense

When Dalton was ready to return to school, she found she was better able to balance her military and academic roles, she explained.

“I was in the National Guard, so I would have drill weekends, go in and do all types of training. Sometimes it was stressful, and I really had to learn how to manage my time, but life was going well for me.”

But the following year, she broke her neck and back horseback riding, and was put into a brace, waist to chin. “I really wanted to come back, but the doctor wouldn’t allow me.”

Still, she was eventually able to return to Barnes, as well as her junior year at AIC. “It was kind of difficult, coming back after being out of the swing of things for a year. I had a lot of struggles, but I had some great supports — a wonderful boyfriend, awesome friends, and my mom, who is my cheerleader. So I struggled, but I made it through.”

Shamicka Jones

Shamicka Jones wants to make a difference the way medical professionals made a difference for her family during times of medical crisis and tragedy.

That year, a family member with mental illness became very ill, which impacted Dalton’s life greatly, and once again she was feeling stretched thin by her military duties, school, and family challenges. But her senior year was much smoother — not less stressful, necessarily, but she was figuring out how to manage the pressures of achieving the career she wanted.

“I feel like I’ve done a lot in the time I’ve been in school,” she told BusinessWest, in what can only be called an understatement.

Shamicka Jones has been through a lot as well, much of it tragic. A congenital heart condition runs in her family, claiming her two brothers at age 11 and her own young son in 2010. Needless to say, she has been exposed to the medical world and some exceptionally caring professionals within it — and found she had a desire to be one, too.

“I did auto insurance for seven years, but I’ve always had an interest in healthcare because of my family history — we had a lot of medical issues,” she said. “Every time I went to the hospital, I always used to see the nurses, and I thought, I want to do that; I want to help people.”

She tried medical assisting school but found the opportunities in that field lacking. After that, she worked at a group home, serving mentally challenged individuals, work she found fulfilling.

But Jones had her sights set on nursing, and was busy with her nursing-school prerequisite coursework when her son passed away, which threw her for a loop. “I started questioning, what am I going to do? Can I ever move forward from this?”

But she continued to attend school, and two years after that, her mother suffered a serious cardiac event “She dropped down in front of me and my daughter while we were out. I had to give her CPR for 10 minutes before the EMS even arrived. We went to the hospital, and they were able to get her back.”

She had to take a semester off to care for her mother, and began doubting her plans to be a nurse — doubts that returned when her daughter was diagnosed with the same genetic heart condition she and so many other family members have.

“I thought, ‘this is not the path,’ she recalled. “But everyone was like, ‘you need to keep going. You need to do this.’” Her daughter, in fact, was her biggest supporter in her quest to get a nursing degree, which she did last month at AIC.

Many Pathways

Jones’ experiences have shaped her career goals, as she is eyeing both cardiac intensive care and psychiatric nursing, helping people with mental-health challenges.

“As a new graduate, I do need to get some experience in so many different areas,” she said. “When I was younger, when I thought of nurses, I thought of hospitals and visiting nurse associations, but nurses are everywhere, in every aspect of society. It’s amazing to me to see all the different options we have.”

Dalton is in the same boat — well, jet, actually — as she considers her options, aiming to find work in a community hospital after taking her boards. She’s looked into being a flight nurse as well, but that plan — which would require copious amounts of specialized training — is on the back burner for now.

When you think of a nurse, the first thing you might think of is somebody in a hospital, at the bedside, but there are so many other possibilities.”

“I always thought I wanted to do some type of pediatric nursing,” she added. “But going through the program, I’ve really broadened my horizons, and now I feel like I want to do everything. Mental illness lies very near and dear to my heart because of my family member, and I see the lack of resources; I see the support that’s not there, the stigma that goes along with it, and I feel like that’s definitely an avenue of interest as well. I’m still interested in pediatrics, and I actually do enjoy working with the older adult population.”

One of her short-term goals is to get involved in community nursing. “In our community course, we actually did blood-pressure and blood-glucose screenings, and that’s something I’m interested in starting up in my town — going to the senior center and starting a little clinic so I can connect with the community and help people.”

Among her long-term goals is meshing her love for horses with her training to launch a therapeutic riding program for special-needs children.

If that sounds like a lot of interests and goals, it is — but it reflects the wide spectrum of roles available to nurses today.

“When you think of a nurse, the first thing you might think of is somebody in a hospital, at the bedside, but there are so many other possibilities,” she said. “That’s the great thing about nursing — you’re not just limited to just one spot, and if you don’t like your job, it doesn’t mean you have to leave nursing. You can maybe do administrative work, or you can do home care. The options are seemingly endless.”

Bennett told BusinessWest she originally wanted to go into labor and delivery. “Now I’ve seen so much more, and I really loved the emergency department, the ICU. I’m pretty open at this point.”

She recognizes that many nurses don’t immediately find the niche they love, and it’s good to keep an open mind, considering all the possible landing spots.

“I know nurses that are stressed by their jobs,” she said, “but I don’t know any nurses who would change careers or say they’d rather do something else. Maybe they’d like a different schedule, but they don’t regret going into nursing.”

Troubled Times

Dalton was experiencing some regrets during the toughest times during her long path to a degree.

“The first year back after I had my injury, I was struggling academically, and I had failed two exams, and I just wasn’t doing well,” she recalled. “An instructor sat down with me and asked me if I had a plan B and what else I would do, and I told her I didn’t.

“I’m extremely persistent,” she said with a laugh born of hard-earned wisdom. “No matter what got in my way, this is what I was meant to do. It was important to be a nurse. The things I’ve been through, that accident … I walked away from a broken neck and back, and the doctors told me I shouldn’t be able to walk right now. So I really believe that this is what I’m meant to do.”

Jones has a similar perspective on being in the right career, no matter where it leads.

“I hope I find my place,” she said. “It may not be where I think I’m going to be right now, but I just want to help people the way my family has been helped. We’ve gone through a lot, but always got amazing care. I want to make that kind of impact.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Piece by Piece

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

It’s hardly news that college costs have consistently risen over the past two decades, outpacing both inflation and incomes. But there are a host of resources families can access to help bring those costs down and reduce the initial sticker shock. Still, putting the pieces together takes a combination of hustle, clear communication, hard work, and often sacrifice, all in search of what students hope will be a life-changing degree.

 

Bryan Gross calls them “success stories” — incoming students who weren’t sure they could afford college, but somehow manage to make it happen.

“You’ll see a lot of media attention and articles about sticker shock, the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board, and it makes families very nervous,” said Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University (WNEU). “But we do work very hard to make college affordable for families, and the sticker price is not what they end up paying.”

But it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It is a lot of piecing things together,” said Kristin Hmieleski, Financial Aid director for Elms College. “We always tell students, ‘you’re not going to get this for free, so let’s look at the resources at hand. What can you get through federal and state aid? What has the institution already offered you by way of merit? What else can we offer based on need? Worst-case scenario, you may have to pay out of pocket or take on additional loans.’ It’s almost like a puzzle we put together.”’

It’s a puzzle that has become increasingly challenging over the past couple decades, as college costs have steadily risen, often outpacing inflation and average income. According to the College Board, which tracks these trends annually, tuition and fees at private, four-year instititions increased by 1.9% from 2016-17 to 2017-18, to an average of $34,740. Meanwhile, public, four-year institutions saw an average increase of 1.3%, to $9,970.

Those increases are substantially lower than the spikes seen during the Great Recession. In 2009-10, for example, private institutions raised tuition and fees by 5.9%, and public schools posted a 9.5% increase.

However, the College Board noted, students still shoulder a heavier burden this year, because even those modest price hikes outpaced grant aid and tax benefits. And that places more pressure on financial-aid officers to help families, well, assemble that puzzle.

The key, both Hmieleski and Gross said, is communication — and lots of it, starting early.

“We do open houses, and as prospective students are looking at Elms College, we talk about different resources they can look at,” Hmieleski said, noting that plenty of opportunities exist beyond the award package — based on academic merit and financial need — that the college puts together for each enrollee.

“They might not know every single website to look at, but we give them some hints about community resources they can look into,” she explained. “Do they belong to a church? Do the businesses their families work for offer scholarships? The students need to do some hunting themselves. Have they reached out to guidance counselors? They might know of some opportunities.”

It’s not an easy process, and it takes legwork and often sacrifice. But if the end result is a degree and a career pathway, families are more than willing to make the effort.

Knowledge Is Power

Gross said communicating with students starts well before they ever sit down in a classroom.

“Being a private institution, being well aware of the current state of the economic landscape, giving families direct and clear information regarding their financial-aid package is really important for us,” he said.

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross says communication with families — both early and often — is key to helping them forge a strategy to pay for college.

To that end, WNEU started a program three years ago called Culture of Financial Wellness, which includes several components, starting with financial-aid counseling, during which officers help families navigate the process of piecing together available resources. Meanwhile, during spring open houses, financial-aid workshops are offered to inform and educate parents about the financial-aid process to help them make the right decisions for their student.

Following those are SOAR, the university’s Summer Orientation and Registration sessions, featuring presentations by Peter Bielagus, known as “America’s Financial Educator,” who provides information to parents about financing their student’s education.

The final piece of Culture of Financial Wellness continues after the student has joined the campus. The Freshman Focus program offers programming and talks to help students successfully transition to college life, including an overview session each fall on finances and spending designed to teach students about credit-card debt and making sound financial decisions in college and beyond.

“We want to educate students and help them understand the importance of living within your means,” Gross said. “That’s the circle of life — we want to help students for the rest of their lives.”

But that help begins at the financial-aid office, where the allocation of resources has been subtly shifting. This year, the College Board reports, federal loans account for 32% of all student aid, followed by institutional grants (25%), federal Pell grants (15%), tax credits and deductions (9%), state grants (6%), private and employer grants (6%), and veteran and military grants (6%).

“We put together a strategy for each student based on their academic performance,” Gross said. “We offer them scholarships, and of course federal and state grants typically get offered, and after that we have need-based grants we offer depending on their circumstances, and typically at the bottom of all that is federal work studies.”

Hmieleski said some 80 to 100 Elms students benefit from federally funded work-study jobs, 7% of which must be targeted at community-service work, such as the America Reads program administered locally by Valley Opportunity Council, in which college students tutor children after school.

“Unfortunately, federal funding has been so limited — it gets cut every year,” she said, noting that some students work at campus jobs funded by the college, while others secure part-time employment off campus.

Gross said certain enrollees benefit from special circumstances. “Veteran students are a population we work with; we help students directly apply for veterans benefits, and they might be eligible for ROTC as well.”

The bottom line, he told BusinessWest, is that students are given a full picture of what resources are available so they can figure out how to fill in the gaps, even if that means living at home.

“We want them to live on campus, but we want families to make an informed decision. It’s amazing how many families don’t even think about that,” he said. “We just don’t want families to be flat-footed when they receive their first bill.”

Beyond the Gloom and Doom

As Gross noted, he’s gratified by the success stories, but they’re not the whole story, unfortunately.

“To be honest with you, every college also has stories of families that fill out an application for federal aid, then come to us and say, ‘this is not our reality; we can’t afford to pay that.’ We work with families to come up with a plan, and it may work, but it may not work.”

In some cases, he said, students will instead opt to begin their education at a two-year community college. No matter what the outcome, though, he tries to make sure the decisions are made from a place of copious information.

“Families know that it’s not just a matter of crossing their fingers and closing their eyes, and somehow it comes together. You really have to have a plan, and you have to use college and community resources to help you through the process.”

No matter how much thought goes into a strategy, Hmieleski added, it’s impossible to de-stress the process of financial planning for college.

“No matter where you are in life, even if you have wealth, money is always stressful,” she said. “When some people hear about finances or anything involving money, their reaction is almost to shut down and not listen because they don’t feel like they’ll ever understand it.

“But we deal with a lot of first-generation, low-income students here at Elms; we are here to support those students,” she went on, noting that the college is invested not only in their ability to pay for school, but their academic success and keeping them enrolled. “OK, you’re here, you’re able to afford it — now let’s make sure you’re academically successful.”

But it begins with that first look at the unassembled puzzle, and all the decisions that go into putting it together. Hmieleski recalled one student — whose academic record was strong — that she worried about every fall, wondering if she’d be able to continue on, due to tight finances. But each year, the family somehow managed, and she graduated.

“I get goosebumps in so many situations when it looked like doom and gloom, like the student wouldn’t be able to come here, but we work on it,” she said. “And when they’re able to walk through that door, it’s a thrill.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Smart Strategy

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch was asked to explain why individuals who retain his services should look upon the fees they pay him as an investment, rather than merely an expense.

And he would spend the next several minutes answering that question in several different ways, using both words and numbers. They were all effective in getting the point home, but perhaps none more so than his simple comparison to buying a home.

“When you buy a house, there’s a mortgage broker, a Realtor, and a lawyer to ensure that the transaction goes through smoothly,” said Metsch, president of East Longmeadow-based the College Advisor of New England. “When people buy a college education, very often, it’s on the emotions of a teenager, because the parents are going through the same learning curve at the time the kid is. So there’s no way to protect their $250,000 investment or their $125,000 investment, whatever it might be.

“If you look at what someone might pay me in fees, that’s about one-fifth what someone would pay to the lawyer, for the Realtor’s commission, and the broker when they buy that house,” he went on. “And the investment is nearly as big; think about it.”

As noted, he had several other methods for answering that question, including a very powerful use of numbers. Indeed, 91% of what he called “College Advisor students” — those who arrived on campus through his assistance — stayed that their enrolled college for four years, compared to the national average rate of 51%, a huge consideration given the soaring sticker price of a college education today.

Metsch, who’s been helping students and parents make what he called “more scientific decisions” about which college to attend for more than two decades now, offers these words and numbers often, because even though his profession has grown considerably in recent years in terms of the numbers of people handling such work, many people are still not aware that such advisors exist and that they can make an extremely daunting process far less so.

Getting that message across is one of the items on Metsch’s do-list, but he’s far busier handling a client list involving parents and students across the region. He provides a wide array of services and coaching on everything from when students should take certain standardized tests to which schools would make the best fits, to how parents can go about paying for the school their child eventually settles on.

Slicing through it all, Metsch said he and his staff help “reduce the movement in a lot of moving targets.”

That’s a colorful phrase he used to describe how his company helps take time, complexity, confusion, and anxiety out of a process that might (maybe ‘would’ is the better word) otherwise involve much larger quantities of each.

When asked how it does this, Metsch would go on in great detail, and we’ll get to those of those thoughts later, but he summed most of it up by saying his company works very hard to get young students to take ownership of the college-selection process, a necessary quality given the high financial stakes involved, but also because many of them don’t take such ownership, and with often dire consequences, poor decision making, and missed opportunities.

For this issue and its focus on paying for college, BusinessWest talked at length with Metsch about his business, his profession, and the mindset students and parents should take as they approach one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make.

Schools of Thought

There’s a map on the wall in the lobby area of the College Advisor’s suite of offices. It identifies essentially every college and university in the country, and at a glance, it’s quite revealing.

Massachusetts has so many of these institutions, there isn’t room for all the names within the confines of the state’s borders, thus they’re placed out over the Atlantic Ocean. In Wyoming, by way of contrast, there are just a few lines for the entire state.

Knowing where the colleges are, however, is just a very small part of the equation when it comes to the process of choosing a school, and the many moving parts, or targets, as Metsch called them, now explain why this profession of college advising has grown considerably after the past quarter-century.

Back in the early ’90s, this was the domain of high-school guidance counselors and a few individuals (mostly women) with backgrounds in social work who often worked part-time out of their homes helping parents and students navigate school-selection matters and options for financing an education.

Over the years, as many of these issues became more complex and parents and students realized they could use some assistance, more of it became available, although there are still not many people doing this kind of work, said Metsch.

And there are tiers within this profession, he noted, adding that some financial advisors will add these services to their portfolios, often as a way to sell more annuities and related products. Parents should look for individuals who can put the letters CEP (certified educational planner) on their business card, said Metsch, adding that he has done so for years now.

As such an advisor, he said he provides counsel on a broad range of subjects, which, as noted earlier, include such things as tests and when they should be taken, colleges and which ones might make the right fit, timelines for decision making, and how to pay for an education.

He said that many parents and students are still of the belief that they can do all this themselves, perhaps with some help from the high-school guidance counselor, and often find out that they’re in over their head or that they’re wasting money and an equally precious commodity — time.

He offered an anecdote to get some of his points across.

“I got a call two months ago from a family that said they thought they could do this on their own,” he recalled. One of the parents said, ‘when we went to Northeastern University, we realized they didn’t have the major my daughter wants. She was interested in looking at the school, but she didn’t realize they didn’t have her major; that was half a day we didn’t need to spend.’”

Busy parents don’t have many half-days to waste, he went on, adding that this family may have been using outdated information or relying on word of mouth. In any case, the proper research wasn’t done before the student and parents gassed up the car and drove across the state.

That’s one very simplistic example of how unscientific many searches are, said Metsch, adding that his business specializes in removing the prefix from that word.

And it does so with every aspect of the process, he added, noting that his team, which has more than 90 years of combined experience, has visited more than 550 colleges and universities across the country and can offer first-hand insight into a broad range of schools.

Staying with that anecdote he offered earlier, Metsch said this was a case where the parent clearly wanted the student to take ownership of the process — and that student did, but wasn’t properly equipped, or properly motivated (or both), to carry out that assignment responsibly.

Which brings him back to that notion of moving targets.

“If you look at financial-aid eligibility, many parents have no idea what they can afford,” he explained. “They’re just looking at a $60,000 price tag, and that’s paralyzing them. Then you have the question about how this school figures out who gets scholarships or need-based aid, so that’s a moving target. The kid doesn’t know what he wants to study, so that’s a moving target. So where do you start the process?

“We’re able to come up with a plan that takes into account how much it’s going to cost at a variety of schools based on the different formulas schools use,” he went on. “We can do an eligibility analysis, and, like an accountant, can reduce your tax burden and increase your eligibility for financial aid.”

There is both an eligibility review and an affordability review, he went on, which really does a deep dive into just what parents can realistically afford, taking into account a host of factors including everything from how loans are paid back to how many children the couple has, to how much money the family will save when the child leaves the house for college.

“Some families may not be able to afford what the formulas say they have to pay,” Metsch went on. “So that means we have to look more at schools where the student can get academic scholarships. We may also say to a student, ‘here’s the threshold you want to get your test scores to, because if you just go up another 20 points, you’ll get another $10,000 from this particular school.’”

Grade Expectations

This is what Metsch means by a more scientific approach to this complex, time-consuming process.

And such science is obviously critical given the high stakes for all those involved and the long-term implications of the decisions being made.

“There are all these moving targets,” he said in conclusion. “And if you can’t freeze-frame them, it’s a complete crapshoot, and no parent wants that.”

And that’s probably the best reason, he went on, why people should look at his services as an investment, not an expense.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Piece by Piece

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

Elms College Financial Aid Director Kristin Hmieleski

It’s hardly news that college costs have consistently risen over the past two decades, outpacing both inflation and incomes. But there are a host of resources families can access to help bring those costs down and reduce the initial sticker shock. Still, putting the pieces together takes a combination of hustle, clear communication, hard work, and often sacrifice, all in search of what students hope will be a life-changing degree.

 

Bryan Gross calls them “success stories” — incoming students who weren’t sure they could afford college, but somehow manage to make it happen.

“You’ll see a lot of media attention and articles about sticker shock, the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board, and it makes families very nervous,” said Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University (WNEU). “But we do work very hard to make college affordable for families, and the sticker price is not what they end up paying.”

But it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It is a lot of piecing things together,” said Kristin Hmieleski, Financial Aid director for Elms College. “We always tell students, ‘you’re not going to get this for free, so let’s look at the resources at hand. What can you get through federal and state aid? What has the institution already offered you by way of merit? What else can we offer based on need? Worst-case scenario, you may have to pay out of pocket or take on additional loans.’ It’s almost like a puzzle we put together.”’

It’s a puzzle that has become increasingly challenging over the past couple decades, as college costs have steadily risen, often outpacing inflation and average income. According to the College Board, which tracks these trends annually, tuition and fees at private, four-year instititions increased by 1.9% from 2016-17 to 2017-18, to an average of $34,740. Meanwhile, public, four-year institutions saw an average increase of 1.3%, to $9,970.

Those increases are substantially lower than the spikes seen during the Great Recession. In 2009-10, for example, private institutions raised tuition and fees by 5.9%, and public schools posted a 9.5% increase.

However, the College Board noted, students still shoulder a heavier burden this year, because even those modest price hikes outpaced grant aid and tax benefits. And that places more pressure on financial-aid officers to help families, well, assemble that puzzle.

The key, both Hmieleski and Gross said, is communication — and lots of it, starting early.

“We do open houses, and as prospective students are looking at Elms College, we talk about different resources they can look at,” Hmieleski said, noting that plenty of opportunities exist beyond the award package — based on academic merit and financial need — that the college puts together for each enrollee.

“They might not know every single website to look at, but we give them some hints about community resources they can look into,” she explained. “Do they belong to a church? Do the businesses their families work for offer scholarships? The students need to do some hunting themselves. Have they reached out to guidance counselors? They might know of some opportunities.”

It’s not an easy process, and it takes legwork and often sacrifice. But if the end result is a degree and a career pathway, families are more than willing to make the effort.

Knowledge Is Power

Gross said communicating with students starts well before they ever sit down in a classroom.

“Being a private institution, being well aware of the current state of the economic landscape, giving families direct and clear information regarding their financial-aid package is really important for us,” he said.

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross says communication with families — both early and often — is key to helping them forge a strategy to pay for college.

To that end, WNEU started a program three years ago called Culture of Financial Wellness, which includes several components, starting with financial-aid counseling, during which officers help families navigate the process of piecing together available resources. Meanwhile, during spring open houses, financial-aid workshops are offered to inform and educate parents about the financial-aid process to help them make the right decisions for their student.

Following those are SOAR, the university’s Summer Orientation and Registration sessions, featuring presentations by Peter Bielagus, known as “America’s Financial Educator,” who provides information to parents about financing their student’s education.

The final piece of Culture of Financial Wellness continues after the student has joined the campus. The Freshman Focus program offers programming and talks to help students successfully transition to college life, including an overview session each fall on finances and spending designed to teach students about credit-card debt and making sound financial decisions in college and beyond.

“We want to educate students and help them understand the importance of living within your means,” Gross said. “That’s the circle of life — we want to help students for the rest of their lives.”

But that help begins at the financial-aid office, where the allocation of resources has been subtly shifting. This year, the College Board reports, federal loans account for 32% of all student aid, followed by institutional grants (25%), federal Pell grants (15%), tax credits and deductions (9%), state grants (6%), private and employer grants (6%), and veteran and military grants (6%).

“We put together a strategy for each student based on their academic performance,” Gross said. “We offer them scholarships, and of course federal and state grants typically get offered, and after that we have need-based grants we offer depending on their circumstances, and typically at the bottom of all that is federal work studies.”

Hmieleski said some 80 to 100 Elms students benefit from federally funded work-study jobs, 7% of which must be targeted at community-service work, such as the America Reads program administered locally by Valley Opportunity Council, in which college students tutor children after school.

“Unfortunately, federal funding has been so limited — it gets cut every year,” she said, noting that some students work at campus jobs funded by the college, while others secure part-time employment off campus.

Gross said certain enrollees benefit from special circumstances. “Veteran students are a population we work with; we help students directly apply for veterans benefits, and they might be eligible for ROTC as well.”

The bottom line, he told BusinessWest, is that students are given a full picture of what resources are available so they can figure out how to fill in the gaps, even if that means living at home.

“We want them to live on campus, but we want families to make an informed decision. It’s amazing how many families don’t even think about that,” he said. “We just don’t want families to be flat-footed when they receive their first bill.”

Beyond the Gloom and Doom

As Gross noted, he’s gratified by the success stories, but they’re not the whole story, unfortunately.

“To be honest with you, every college also has stories of families that fill out an application for federal aid, then come to us and say, ‘this is not our reality; we can’t afford to pay that.’ We work with families to come up with a plan, and it may work, but it may not work.”

In some cases, he said, students will instead opt to begin their education at a two-year community college. No matter what the outcome, though, he tries to make sure the decisions are made from a place of copious information.

“Families know that it’s not just a matter of crossing their fingers and closing their eyes, and somehow it comes together. You really have to have a plan, and you have to use college and community resources to help you through the process.”

No matter how much thought goes into a strategy, Hmieleski added, it’s impossible to de-stress the process of financial planning for college.

“No matter where you are in life, even if you have wealth, money is always stressful,” she said. “When some people hear about finances or anything involving money, their reaction is almost to shut down and not listen because they don’t feel like they’ll ever understand it.

“But we deal with a lot of first-generation, low-income students here at Elms; we are here to support those students,” she went on, noting that the college is invested not only in their ability to pay for school, but their academic success and keeping them enrolled. “OK, you’re here, you’re able to afford it — now let’s make sure you’re academically successful.”

But it begins with that first look at the unassembled puzzle, and all the decisions that go into putting it together. Hmieleski recalled one student — whose academic record was strong — that she worried about every fall, wondering if she’d be able to continue on, due to tight finances. But each year, the family somehow managed, and she graduated.

“I get goosebumps in so many situations when it looked like doom and gloom, like the student wouldn’t be able to come here, but we work on it,” she said. “And when they’re able to walk through that door, it’s a thrill.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Sections

Smart Strategy

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch says he works to help make the many moving targets that emerge in the college-selection process move a lot less.

Adam Metsch was asked to explain why individuals who retain his services should look upon the fees they pay him as an investment, rather than merely an expense.

And he would spend the next several minutes answering that question in several different ways, using both words and numbers. They were all effective in getting the point home, but perhaps none more so than his simple comparison to buying a home.

“When you buy a house, there’s a mortgage broker, a Realtor, and a lawyer to ensure that the transaction goes through smoothly,” said Metsch, president of East Longmeadow-based the College Advisor of New England. “When people buy a college education, very often, it’s on the emotions of a teenager, because the parents are going through the same learning curve at the time the kid is. So there’s no way to protect their $250,000 investment or their $125,000 investment, whatever it might be.

“If you look at what someone might pay me in fees, that’s about one-fifth what someone would pay to the lawyer, for the Realtor’s commission, and the broker when they buy that house,” he went on. “And the investment is nearly as big; think about it.”

As noted, he had several other methods for answering that question, including a very powerful use of numbers. Indeed, 91% of what he called “College Advisor students” — those who arrived on campus through his assistance — stayed that their enrolled college for four years, compared to the national average rate of 51%, a huge consideration given the soaring sticker price of a college education today.

Metsch, who’s been helping students and parents make what he called “more scientific decisions” about which college to attend for more than two decades now, offers these words and numbers often, because even though his profession has grown considerably in recent years in terms of the numbers of people handling such work, many people are still not aware that such advisors exist and that they can make an extremely daunting process far less so.

Getting that message across is one of the items on Metsch’s do-list, but he’s far busier handling a client list involving parents and students across the region. He provides a wide array of services and coaching on everything from when students should take certain standardized tests to which schools would make the best fits, to how parents can go about paying for the school their child eventually settles on.

Slicing through it all, Metsch said he and his staff help “reduce the movement in a lot of moving targets.”

That’s a colorful phrase he used to describe how his company helps take time, complexity, confusion, and anxiety out of a process that might (maybe ‘would’ is the better word) otherwise involve much larger quantities of each.

When asked how it does this, Metsch would go on in great detail, and we’ll get to those of those thoughts later, but he summed most of it up by saying his company works very hard to get young students to take ownership of the college-selection process, a necessary quality given the high financial stakes involved, but also because many of them don’t take such ownership, and with often dire consequences, poor decision making, and missed opportunities.

For this issue and its focus on paying for college, BusinessWest talked at length with Metsch about his business, his profession, and the mindset students and parents should take as they approach one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make.

Schools of Thought

There’s a map on the wall in the lobby area of the College Advisor’s suite of offices. It identifies essentially every college and university in the country, and at a glance, it’s quite revealing.

Massachusetts has so many of these institutions, there isn’t room for all the names within the confines of the state’s borders, thus they’re placed out over the Atlantic Ocean. In Wyoming, by way of contrast, there are just a few lines for the entire state.

Knowing where the colleges are, however, is just a very small part of the equation when it comes to the process of choosing a school, and the many moving parts, or targets, as Metsch called them, now explain why this profession of college advising has grown considerably after the past quarter-century.

Back in the early ’90s, this was the domain of high-school guidance counselors and a few individuals (mostly women) with backgrounds in social work who often worked part-time out of their homes helping parents and students navigate school-selection matters and options for financing an education.

Over the years, as many of these issues became more complex and parents and students realized they could use some assistance, more of it became available, although there are still not many people doing this kind of work, said Metsch.

And there are tiers within this profession, he noted, adding that some financial advisors will add these services to their portfolios, often as a way to sell more annuities and related products. Parents should look for individuals who can put the letters CEP (certified educational planner) on their business card, said Metsch, adding that he has done so for years now.

As such an advisor, he said he provides counsel on a broad range of subjects, which, as noted earlier, include such things as tests and when they should be taken, colleges and which ones might make the right fit, timelines for decision making, and how to pay for an education.

He said that many parents and students are still of the belief that they can do all this themselves, perhaps with some help from the high-school guidance counselor, and often find out that they’re in over their head or that they’re wasting money and an equally precious commodity — time.

He offered an anecdote to get some of his points across.

“I got a call two months ago from a family that said they thought they could do this on their own,” he recalled. One of the parents said, ‘when we went to Northeastern University, we realized they didn’t have the major my daughter wants. She was interested in looking at the school, but she didn’t realize they didn’t have her major; that was half a day we didn’t need to spend.’”

Busy parents don’t have many half-days to waste, he went on, adding that this family may have been using outdated information or relying on word of mouth. In any case, the proper research wasn’t done before the student and parents gassed up the car and drove across the state.

That’s one very simplistic example of how unscientific many searches are, said Metsch, adding that his business specializes in removing the prefix from that word.

And it does so with every aspect of the process, he added, noting that his team, which has more than 90 years of combined experience, has visited more than 550 colleges and universities across the country and can offer first-hand insight into a broad range of schools.

Staying with that anecdote he offered earlier, Metsch said this was a case where the parent clearly wanted the student to take ownership of the process — and that student did, but wasn’t properly equipped, or properly motivated (or both), to carry out that assignment responsibly.

Which brings him back to that notion of moving targets.

“If you look at financial-aid eligibility, many parents have no idea what they can afford,” he explained. “They’re just looking at a $60,000 price tag, and that’s paralyzing them. Then you have the question about how this school figures out who gets scholarships or need-based aid, so that’s a moving target. The kid doesn’t know what he wants to study, so that’s a moving target. So where do you start the process?

“We’re able to come up with a plan that takes into account how much it’s going to cost at a variety of schools based on the different formulas schools use,” he went on. “We can do an eligibility analysis, and, like an accountant, can reduce your tax burden and increase your eligibility for financial aid.”

There is both an eligibility review and an affordability review, he went on, which really does a deep dive into just what parents can realistically afford, taking into account a host of factors including everything from how loans are paid back to how many children the couple has, to how much money the family will save when the child leaves the house for college.

“Some families may not be able to afford what the formulas say they have to pay,” Metsch went on. “So that means we have to look more at schools where the student can get academic scholarships. We may also say to a student, ‘here’s the threshold you want to get your test scores to, because if you just go up another 20 points, you’ll get another $10,000 from this particular school.’”

Grade Expectations

This is what Metsch means by a more scientific approach to this complex, time-consuming process.

And such science is obviously critical given the high stakes for all those involved and the long-term implications of the decisions being made.

“There are all these moving targets,” he said in conclusion. “And if you can’t freeze-frame them, it’s a complete crapshoot, and no parent wants that.”

And that’s probably the best reason, he went on, why people should look at his services as an investment, not an expense.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]