November 09, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

Calvin's ACT prep program familiarizes high school-ers with both the test and the college.

In 2006, Nathan Tonlaar, a Calvin student from Ghana, was reading a bulletin board when he spotted a flyer offering coaching for the American College Test (ACT). The ACT is one of the two tests high school students take to show their college readiness. “The cost was hefty,” said Tasha Cruz, Calvin’s director of pre-college programs, “and he had the idea that anybody should receive assistance for the ACT.”

Because Tonlaar worked at Calvin’s service-learning center, he worked through that office to set up an ACT test prep program with Ottawa Hills High School. He recruited students from various departments to serve as tutors to the Ottawa Hills students, familiarizing them with the ACT and with the general college application process. He also helped to land a Michigan Campus Compact grant to fund the program. In June of 2006, Tonlaar was recognized with a Congressman Paul Henry Integrity Award Scholarship because of his efforts to make the ACT more accessible to local students.

Tonlaar’s innovative program continues at Calvin in the form of Excel, a five-week ACT test prep program sponsored by the college's department  of pre-college programs. Thirty-three students— from Central, Ottawa Hills, Union, Wyoming Park, Godfrey Lee and Kentwood public high schools and the Potter’s House— are participating in the program,which runs this year from October 16 through November 15. “And we also had a wait list for this past semester,” said Cruz.

Preparing for college

The students are paired with 22 tutors from a range of disciplines (and based on which subjects they want to target on the test). The pairs meet up once a week, sign in and go to the library, the Spoelhof Café, the Fish House and other designated places to study.  “They’re going over some of the questions that are in the ACT, but they’re also helping them with problem-solving skills, with SAT skills,” said  Cruz. The Calvin students are given Cross Cultural Engagement (CCE) credit, necessary for graduation, for serving as Excel tutors.

Last Wednesday, Calvin Senior Calvin Wiersma and Van Norris, a 17-year-old senior at East Kentwood High School, huddled over the test questions in the Spoelhof Cafe. Norris, who likes English and hopes to work in media production or photography, hopes that ACT prep will help him gain entry to a wider choice of colleges. "There's always room for improvement," he said. Wiersma first signed up as a tutor in the spring of 2011. He did it for the CCE credit. "This fall I signed up mostly because of my experience last spring," Wiersma said. "I've always thought education was important, but I didn't realize how under-served some students are. I want to be a part of solving the education gap in our country." The program has inspired Wiersma to pursue a career in education administration.

"The Excel ACT program is a wonderful partnership between Calvin College and the Grand Rapids community," said Rick Zomer Calvin's director of pre-college programs and visits. "Calvin students have the opportunity to further the college aspirations of high school students who in turn, enrich our community through their involvement with the campus."

Positive outcomes

Excel kicks off with an orientation banquet and closes with a celebration banquet. The students’ families are eager to come to both events, said Cruz. “They are really proud of their students being committed to being tutored in the ACT.”

The students are also positive about participating in Excel: “Their feedback has been that it has given them more confidence to take the ACT … And they felt like Calvin cared about their future,” Cruz said.

She told the story of one recent Excel pairing: The tutor was a basketball player who needed a CCE credit; the high school student attended the program because he was dragged by his mother. At some point in the semester, the mother noted a significant attitude change toward Excel: “When she would be coming home from work, he would be ready to go,” Cruz said. The player too got invested in the program. Eventually the high school student applied to and participated in Calvin’s Entrada Scholar’s Program. “And he’s gone on to attend college,” Cruz said.

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