More counselors suggested by schools plagued by threats

Capital News Service

LANSING —  Michigan schools are experiencing increased threats of violence in the months following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, when 19 students were killed.

The number of threats or acts of violence in schools is three times higher across the nation since February, according to the Educators School Safety Network, a nonprofit that tracks media reports of violence. It regularly reports Michigan as being in the top 10 in the nation for such incidents.

Two shootings have occurred at Michigan schools since 2016.

In Northern Michigan, police have investigated three potential threats at Traverse City West High School and one at Petoskey High School since mid-February.

Two cases concerned friends who responded to a threat made by a classmate. None of the instances was found to be a credible threat of violence.

“I don’t think the hypersensitivity to threats is a bad thing right now,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school staff.

“At the root cause of this are students who really need help,” Pratt said. “We need to be able to provide the holistic education for a kid, and that includes taking care of their mental wellbeing.”

In 2015, the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District developed a crisis response team of two social workers and nine psychologists to address the needs that its school often face.

“The crisis team offers training for all the local school districts and academies,” said Carol Greilick, the district’s assistant superintendent of special education.

“Trauma and crisis are in the eyes of the beholder,” Greilick said. “It may be a relatively simple thing, such as a student losing a family member, or it could be a school district losing a student or teacher.”

In response to the sudden death of a teacher last year, the crisis team provided  assistance.

“The team worked with administrators in both districts to plan a response,” Greilick said. “They set up counseling rooms, planned the script for informing students and worked step by step through the response anticipating student needs, family needs and staff needs.”

Addressing student concerns is more difficult with less staff, said Tamara Kolodziej, a guidance counselor at Petoskey High School.

The average ratio for K-12 schools in the U.S. is 482 students per counselor. In Michigan, which has seen a 25 percent decrease in school counselors since 2005, the ratio is 729 students for each counselor.

In response to concerns about school safety and student welfare, the Senate is considering a bill that would allocate an additional $50 million towards hiring more guidance counselors, social workers and armed resource officers.

“Here at Petoskey we have two counselors for a thousand students,” Kolodziej said. “We’re lucky because they’re going to be hiring another counselor next year. We’ve been down to two counselors for the last seven years.”

Guidance counselors are responsible for “data maintenance, scheduling classes, transcripts, communicating with parents and staff —  it’s a lot for two people,” she said.

“Our biggest job is organizing testing,” said Kolodziej.

Those obligations mean that counselors get less face time with students. “We each generally see 10 to 12 students in our office a day,” Kolodziej said.

Kolodziej emphasized the difference between a guidance counselor and a licensed therapist.

Petoskey High School has a licensed therapist practicing on site. Therapy isn’t free but having one on site provides easier access for students seeking mental health services.

Addressing student mental health needs will take adjustments on the part of schools.

“We need to arm educators with smaller class sizes, more counselors and better security measures,” the MEA’s Pratt said.

Students are well aware that the potential for violence exists, Pratt said. “Even at a young age, you have elementary schools going through lockdown drills.”

Teachers and counsellors are not the only ones who should be responsible for students’ welfare, he said. The whole school system is responsible.

“A classroom teacher’s job is to help every student learn the material,” Pratt said.

“We can’t ask educators to do everything,” Pratt said. “They need to be able to assess the situations, but they also need the resources to follow up.”

Young people are struggling with homelessness, studies find

LANSING — Schoolchildren and youths in Michigan are struggling with homelessness at high rates, new studies show.

Poverty Solutions, a University of Michigan initiative dedicated to prevention and alleviation of poverty, found Michigan among the states with the largest number of homeless youths — more than 36,000 children in elementary, middle and high schools facing homelessness and housing insecurity.

This report was confirmed by the 2018 Kids Count report– a study by the Michigan League for Public Policy that analyzes and evaluates the wellbeing of children in the state. It  found that in 2016, 444,100 children lived in poverty.

The report ranked 82 of the 83 counties for overall child wellbeing. The top five counties are Livingston, Ottawa, Clinton and Oakland. The bottom five counties are Lake, Clare, Muskegon, Calhoun and Oceana.

Between 2010 and 2016, the Kids Count shows a 23 percent improvement in children homelessness rates. However, more than one in five Michigan children lived in poverty in 2016.

“It’s not a great improvement but it is some improvement. More than one in five children living in poverty really has huge implications on education and health and other indicators of well-being for kids,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, the Kids Count director.

Despite the slight improvement and the lowest unemployment levels in decades, the Kids Count report said jobs are paying significantly low wages that don’t  keep up with growing inflation rates, causing income levels to remain below pre-recession levels.

According to  U-M’s Poverty Solutions analysis, dropout rates for homeless students are increasing and homeless high school students are particularly vulnerable.

Some areas in the state are affected more than others. In West Michigan, for example, counties like Oceana, Muskegon and Mason have the highest rates of homelessness.

Staircase Youth Services, a Ludington-based nonprofit organization operating in a number of West Michigan counties, said its Oceana County agency is experiencing higher rates of homelessness than other counties in the area.

“I was not surprised by the high number in Oceana County. There is a real lack of housing in Oceana County and the poverty level is pretty high,” said Cynthia Arneson, the executive director of Staircase Youth Services.

The organization works with high school students and youths between the ages of 12 and 21.

“We have a host home program where we place youth that are homeless in a host home within the county so that they can stay in school,” Arneson said.

Participants can stay in the program for up to 18 months while receiving support by the staff.

Poverty Solutions created a map that shows the percent and number of students experiencing homelessness in each Michigan school district and the percentage of low-income students experiencing homelessness.

During the 2015-16 school year, Michigan ranked sixth among states with the most homeless students, after California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois.

Though homelessness is a statewide issue impacting children in rural and urban areas, the highest rates are among students in the smallest school districts, the U-M report said.

Guevara Warren of the League for Public Policy said workforce development and the types of jobs available locally are a big piece of economic security and poverty.

“We still have in this state over 30 percent of children whose families lack full-time permanent work. You see a lot of families who are either working at low wage jobs or are trying to piece together several part-time or seasonal jobs,” she said.

Arneson said that in Oceana County, even if people are employed, the level and amount of income they earn is insufficient for the local housing market.

“So there are people who have jobs, and even if they are working 40 hours a week they cannot necessarily afford to live in the housing that is available in our counties,” she said.

To address the issue of poverty, Guevara Warren says one way to improve economic security for children is to take a generation approach, which ensures that children, parents and caregivers all receive help and support at the same time.

As an example, she said the state has started investing  to improve the child care system, particularly concerning eligibility requirements.

“We have improved that slightly but we’re still really towards the bottom when it comes to child care eligibility in the country,” Guevara Warren said.

She said the state has also improved provider reimbursement rates through child care subsidies but still tends to be at the bottom when it comes to reimbursement to providers.

More test scores put Michigan students in bottom half

Capital News Service

LANSING —  Michigan lags behind most of the country when it comes to the biennial standardized test given to select fourth- and eighth-grade students, according to a new National Assessment of Educational Progress report.

The report shows that Michigan students in those grades made miniscule improvements from 2015 to 2017 in math and reading on the NAEP test.

And the overall picture is not good: Michigan ranked 38th in fourth-grade math, 33rd in eighth-grade math, 35th in fourth-grade reading and 30th in eighth-grade reading.

In specific scores, in 2017, Michigan fourth-graders averaged 236 on the math portion of the assessment, which was unchanged from 2015 and four points lower than the national average.

Average math scores of eighth-graders increased slightly from 278 in 2015 to 280 in 2017.

Fourth-graders averaged 218 in reading, a two-point increase from two years prior. Eighth-graders improved by a one point in reading, the only score close to the national average.

“We haven’t changed,” said Sarah Lenhoff, an assistant professor of educational leadership and educational studies at Wayne State University. “What that told me was we’re not improving those numbers we saw declining over the years.

“Our scores are stable, which is better than declining, but while Michigan has remained stable, other states are improving their numbers,” she said. “This makes me concerned. We’re being left behind.”

Despite the marginal improvement, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston said he wants to make Michigan a top-10 education state in 10 years.

“It is important that we keep working with intermediate school districts and local school districts to provide support and assistance to help all of their students achieve at higher levels,” he said.

“We keep moving forward on our goal to be a top-10 education state in 10 years and know that the early work we’re putting into motion will pay positive dividends in the very near future,” Whiston said.

Part of that plan, said William DiSessa, a communications officer in the Department of Education, is to focus on the “whole child” to improve student achievement and to make students college- and career-ready by increasing their pathways to success.

“As we implement the plan’s various strategies, we anticipate further academic improvements for students in our K-12 public schools,” he said.

While state education officials say the plan will work, Lenhoff said she isn’t sure.

“I don’t want to say it’s not possible,” she said. But it will require “serious change” from the  Legislature, governor and Department of Education.

“There needs to be adequate resources put forth to fix this,” she said. “Currently, they’re not doing everything they can do to improve the schools.”

Athletes find ways to cope with life after sports

Capital News Service

LANSING — Jake Sterling, a former Michigan State University club football wide receiver, is now transitioning into the workforce after spending his college career as an athlete.

A 2016 graduate, Sterling, from Newport, competed in track and field and on the club football team.

But like thousands of other student-athletes who don’t move to the professional level, Sterling had to figure out how to transition into a life that no longer revolves around their sports. He now works as an IT account manager for Randstad Technologies in Troy.

“I’ve been competing in sports my whole life. Losing that competitive edge that I used to go through every day, like when I was running track and playing club football, is easily the most challenging part,” Sterling said. “On the contrary, the positive part is transitioning that into my work life because I’m now an account manager for a sales position, so being competitive in that position brings out the competitive edge that I learned in sports.

“Now I apply that to my work life,” he said.

Few collegiate athletes ever play professionally, according to data from NCAA. Only 5.6 percent of men’s ice hockey players will play in the NHL, for example. As for football, only 1.5 percent of college athletes will play in the NFL. Fewer than 1 percent of female collegiate basketball athletes will play in the WNBA.

Melinda Harrison, a founding partner of Teal & Co., a consulting firm in Toronto, Ontario, helps athletes transition from the college world to the working world, said, “Sport is all encompassing, and an athlete’s life revolves around a cycle of training and competition schedules.

“And it has revolved around this venue from early stages of childhood adolescents,” said Harrison, who was an All-American swimmer at the University of Michigan.

“An athlete that competes at an NCAA level has spent many years perfecting the execution of skills with dedication, desire, grit, and self-regulation,” she said.

“These are what I refer to as character skills of sport. They become part of the athlete’s DNA because of the life that they have experienced. When that venue disappears, so does the place to execute that part of their operating DNA,” she said.

Harrison said most athletes who leave their sport go through a period of adjustment that “can range in intensity from feeling unsure, to lost, or feeling just not normal to severe depression and anxiety.

“One common mistake those on the outside make is the assumption that just because someone has moved on to a job, that they have successfully transitioned from sport. This is far from reality. A job is a positive step towards transition but does not replace the deep meaning that sport has provided, she said.

Aaron Stuk, a former MSU rugby player and native of Oxford, recently moved to Oregon to work at a ski resort. He has his own way to cope with a new lifestyle after his four years playing rugby.

“I have explored new avenues to challenge myself physically and mentally, like snowboarding, rock climbing and cross-country hiking. I also play in men’s rugby leagues and coach youth teams in my spare time to grow the sport,” Stuk said.

“Coaching is a great way to give back and stay involved after college ball. Motivating co-workers and teammates to accomplish a common goal is something that I will always attribute to rugby,” he said.

Trevor Darnell writes for Spartan Newsroom.

Adult education struggles with stagnant funding

Capital News Service

LANSING — Adult education is handcuffed by a stagnant budget that critics say keeps the state from alleviating cycles of poverty amid one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation.

Over 1 million Michigan residents don’t have their high school diploma or equivalent, according to Stepheni Schlinker, a communications specialist for the Michigan Talent Investment Agency.

State funding for adult education programs was cut from $75 million to $20 million in 2004. Enrollment dropped with the funding from 76,000 in 2001 to 35,000 by 2005.

Adult education classes are free services provided around the state for individuals wanting to get their high school degree or improve their basic literacy skills.

This year, adult education programs are receiving $25 million in state funding. Federal grants also contribute but have declined from $17 million in 2003 to $13.3 million in 2018. Adjusting for inflation, adult education would require an additional $11.5 million to match the 2003 funding level.

Around 28,000 state residents participate in the programs each year.

“We administer the governor’s budget, and we’re certainly trying to run our programs and expand our programs,” said Joe Billig, the director of the Office of Talent Policy and Planning for the Michigan Workforce Development Agency. “We always look to ways our programs can improve, even if more funding is not available.”

By encouraging students to co-enroll in other government programs to spread costs around and by moving tests and textbooks online, the agency has been able to keep providing services with less money, Billig said.

“We know that children of parents who have low literacy skills are 72 percent more likely to have low reading levels or drop out of school,” said Krista Johnson, the director of Education and Career Success for the Workforce Development Agency.

The graduation rate for Michigan K-12 students was below 80 percent and tied for 40th- worst in the nation for the 2015-16 school year. The rate for low-income students was only 67 percent, according to the U.S Department of Education.

For Northwest Michigan, funding challenges come as the population of adult education students has undergone a significant shift.

“It used to mostly be 35-to-50-year-olds — now we’re seeing them in the 18-to-24 range,” said Christy Nelson, the adult education coordinator for Northwest Michigan Works!

Her agency covers Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford counties and serves between 600 and 700 students every year in adult education programs. Last year, 330 of them were between 16 and 24 years old.

The low high school  graduation rates put pressure on adult education programs.

“Most of the kids that we see coming in fell so far behind in their credits that it’s easier to just get a GED,” Nelson said.

State funding for adult education programs is based on how many people in a region lack high school diplomas or who speak English as a second language.

“We’re definitely underfunded,” Nelson said. “The largest cost that we have is teachers’ salaries. When we have less income, we reduce the number of hours they work per week.”

Northwest Michigan Works! employs six teachers at learning labs in Petoskey, Kalkaska, Cadillac, Manistee and Traverse City.

One of the students’ main complaints is the lack of nighttime schooling options, Nelson said. “Many of our students work several low-income jobs just to make ends meet.”

Programs forced to close mean further driving distances for students.

For example, “Livingston County does not have an adult education program as the result of cuts,” said Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. “Students from Livingston County drive 30 miles to Novi in Oakland County in order to attend a program.”

“In the Upper Peninsula, there are people who have to drive 50 miles both ways because it is so sparsely populated,” he said.

“We’re concerned about the people with families, the people with jobs that are stuck in a low-wage spiral of poverty that need to build their skills in order to get jobs that pay well so they can be economically secure,” he said.

Nelson said participation in adult education programs fluctuates with unemployment. “When unemployment is high, we see higher traffic.”

More distance learning programs could help those with job conflicts or who need to stay home with a child, she said, adding that Northwest Michigan Works! bought an

an online learning program that students can access from home. Students also can reach teachers through video calls and email.

As skilled labor shortage looms, efforts aim to recruit students

Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan manufacturers continue to experience a skilled labor shortage, and specialty education programs across the state are aiming to fill the gap with young workers.

While unskilled jobs are fading, workers for pretty much any skilled job are needed across the industry, said Michigan Manufacturers Association President Chuck Hadden.

Employers are currently poaching workers from each other to fill staffing holes, he said.

“Welders — I can get almost any of those people jobs any place in the state,” Hadden said. “If you’ve got a skill of some sort, (employers) will help work with you. If you’ve got a skill, I’ll find you a place you want.”

According to Gov. Rick Snyder’s Marshall Plan for Talent released in February, Michigan will have 811,000 career openings to fill through 2024 in fields with talent shortages, 109,410 of which are estimated to be manufacturing jobs.

Snyder’s plan calls for an additional $100 million in new program funding, complementing $225 million in existing talent development funding.

The demand for workers is so great that employers are often willing to pay for workers’ educations to properly train them for open positions, Hadden said.

“If you want to work for them and have the start of the skills, workers can work during the day and take community college classes at night at company’s dimes,” Hadden said.

An example is the Michigan Advanced Technician Training Program, better known as “MAT2.”

Instituted by Snyder, the program follows a work/school model in which employers “sponsor” student workers, paying for their studies and employing them part-time for a three-year period, said Mark Lagerwey, the associate director of business development at Baker College of Cadillac.

After students graduate with an associate degree in mechatronics, IT, product design or computer numerical control, they are contractually obligated to work for the company for at least two years.

Baker College of Cadillac will graduate its first class of 14 MAT2 students on May 4, Lagerwey said.

Oakland Community College and Henry Ford College also have MAT2 programs.

“There’s a huge need for these people,” Lagerwey said. “The industries spend a lot of money training these people, but they know that they would probably be spending more money on (manufacturing) lines being down.”

The shortage is exacerbated by demographic shifts in the industry, not just in Michigan but nationwide, Lagerwey said. There aren’t enough people coming into the industry to replace the number leaving, roughly 10,000 a day, he said.

“The baby boomers are retiring, that’s a fact,” Lagerwey said. “There’s a huge need for skilled people in many, many areas, but this is certainly one critical area that’s being addressed with a pretty innovative program.”

If the MAT2 program has struggled with anything, Lagerwey said, it’s the same struggle the rest of the industry faces: Getting young people and students interested.

“There is a skills gap in many areas, from health care to manufacturing. And there’s a lot of factors that came together — low unemployment, baby boomers retiring — put all those things together it was kind of a perfect storm,” Lagerwey said. “Finding people, students, has been one of the biggest challenges. It’s hard work, but we’re making headway.”

That’s in part an issue of proper marketing to students and parents, Lagerwey said, because many parents don’t think manufacturing jobs exist anymore, and those who do think what’s left are “dirty jobs.”

While such jobs still exist, Lagerwey said the industry’s growth is focused in well-paying jobs in high-tech environments rather than the assembly line jobs long associated with the field.

“Now you need people who can manage robots as opposed to people who do what robots do,” Lagerwey said.

Hadden agrees that the perception of factories as dark, dirty and dangerous is a barrier to getting youths to pursue manufacturing trades. The Manufacturers Association  combats that misperception through initiatives such as “Manufacturing Day” on the first of October every year, which focuses on getting prospective workers into plants, factories and shops for tours.

“Michigan does more of these events than any other state in the union,” Hadden said. “I would not be afraid to open up my facility and show it to people, and show them what we’re doing and the skills that are going to be needed.”

Hadden said such events have seen an uptick in participation in the last two years as the labor market has tightened.

“If you can get the high school kids interested and they can see the kind of money they can make and the job that they’ll have, they’re going to flock to it at that point,” Hadden said.

Sex ed would include all the details about consent


Capital News Service

LANSING — As the nation deals with widespread sexual assault reports, Rep. Tom Cochran, D-Mason, has introduced a bill that would require schools to teach affirmative consent in sexual education classes.

The bill, referred to as the “Yes Means Yes” bill, would ensure schools teach what a healthy dating relationship looks like, the setting of personal boundaries and the underlying elements of consent.

“As the father of three sons, I think it’s really important that young men know that consent is something that’s ongoing,” Cochran said. “It’s not something that is given. It’s not because you’re dating someone that implies consent.”

Cochran and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, have tried for several years to improve sexual education and understanding of consent.

In 2015, Hertel and Cochran introduced bills pertaining to affirmative consent, but it didn’t gain any traction.

But they didn’t give up on improving how consent is taught in Michigan. Hertel introduced another consent bill last year that is still pending in the Senate Education Committee.

“Given the recent upsurge in campus sexual assault cases, it’s clear that our current statute simply doesn’t put enough emphasis on what consent means,” Hertel said. “Teaching our kids about affirmative consent is a great first step in the fight against the epidemic of sexual assault.”

Cochran’s most recent bill focuses less on saying “no” and more on recognizing consent.

“It’s important because we’ve taught that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ but we need to shift from that. Currently, this teaching doesn’t seem to be working,” he said.

“Young women — college-aged — are four times more likely than any other group to face sexual assault. We need to be talking about affirmative sexual consent and what a healthy relationship looks like,” he said.

Kathy Hagenian, the executive policy director of Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence based in Okemos, agrees that schools should go beyond just teaching “no” means “no.”

“We need to teach that healthy relationships, by definition, require respect, understanding boundaries and obtaining consent,” she said. “Educating teens about consent and open communication in regards to physical intimacy in relationships does not promote sexual activity — in fact, research and experience shows the opposite is true.”

Co-sponsors include Rep. Scott Diandra, D-Calumet.

The bill would amend the sexual education curriculum by mandating that school districts focus less on the saying “no” approach and more on recognizing what consent is. It would also promote student understanding of how to set limits and how to recognize a dangerous situation while providing instruction on respectful dating relationships and setting personal boundaries.

Cochran said, “We need to be talking about consent. It needs to be comprehensive. It needs to be a subject that can be linked to the conversation. We are making some headway, but the reality is people are having sexual relationships and they need to be taught.”

He said, “And they need to be taught in their K-12 education before they get on these college campuses.”

Cochran said the bill doesn’t specify what grades should teach consent and sexual education. That would be up to individual school districts.

“Certainly, 5th grade, that’s much too young to learn about sexual education,” Cochran said. “But young people are having relationships in middle school and, certainly, in high school. It helps them to understand what the idea is behind domestic and dating violence.”

With recent well-publicized sexual assault cases in Michigan — most prominently at Michigan State University — David Crim, communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association, said the union is deeply concerned for the safety of the students, both in K-12 and at colleges and universities.

The MEA will continue to advocate and support measures to help ensure their safety, Crim said.

“Given the terrible crimes committed by (former sports Dr.) Larry Nassar at MSU, as well as other sexual assaults in schools,” Crim said, “we need to take these situations seriously.”  

Cochran’s bill is awaiting action in the House Education Reform Committee.

Libraries continue to evolve in a technological age

Capital News Service

LANSING — As online technology has crept into everyday life and education, free public access to computers and internet has become an important attraction of public libraries.

“There’s a divide between families that have technology available and those who don’t,” said Gail Madziar, director of Michigan Association of Libraries. “If you’re a student that needs to do their homework, sometimes a library is the only place that you have to access information in a safe place.”

Many libraries serving rural populations report significant demand for their online services. For instance, internet services at the Presque Isle district libraries were accessed over 14,000 times in 2017. The county has a population of 13,000.

“We have internet access at all five of our locations,” said Amber Clement, director of Presque Isle District Library. “Besides us as a library, McDonald’s is the next best bet for free internet.”

One big use of the service is by high school students who are dual-enrolled with Alpena Community College, which requires internet access.

“A lot of these kids live out in rural areas without internet access and so they rely on either the school or the library to provide that,” Clement said.

On the other side of the state, more of Grand Traverse County has access to broadband internet than in Presque Isle County, but the Traverse Area District LIbraries still see use of its internet.

The district’s six libraries have recorded 3,477 users spending 11,289 hours on library computers this year.

Libraries also provide a basic technology education.

The district sees a large turnout for technology information classes, said Brice Bush, adult services coordinator for Traverse Area District Libraries.

“We’re working on creating a senior summer camp series designed for older patrons,” Bush said. “The programs would be focused on social media literacy and decoding your device. … Anyone is welcome to bring the technology you use to the session and we’ll be there to help.”

Involving the community can be done in other ways as well. In Alpena, the focus of Tinker Tuesdays is less on education and more on experimentation.

Tinker Tuesdays at Alpena Public Library are an opportunity for students and adults to play with new technologies.

“Kids are coming in with their parents, and pretty soon their parents become interested and start participating,” said Nancy Mousseau, technology specialist for Alpena Public Libraries.

“We have a 3-D printer and 3-D printing pens, along with low-tech projects as well like Legos and K’nex.”

In Traverse City, Bush is committed to opening the tech world to patrons.

“Public libraries are staying relevant in the technological world we’re living in by the dedicated free access to computers and internet connection,” Bush said.


Michigan educators push for more science and math opportunities for girls

Capital News Service

LANSING – The push is on in Michigan to increase gender diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

But gender imbalance in what are called the STEM fields isn’t easy to fix, experts say.

In 2016, Michigan had 639,405 STEM jobs, which is expected to increase by 11 percent over the next 10 years, according to the 2017 STEM and Innovation Report Card from the Alliance for Science and Technology in America, based in Washington, D.C.

Although job opportunities are increasing, only about 15 percent of female high school students expected to graduate in 2018 are interested in STEM fields, compared to 47 percent of male students, according to the report card.

Lots of STEM programs in the Kent Intermediate School District put efforts into increasing gender diversity and girls’ interests, said Allison Kaufman, the district’s director of communications and marketing.

One such program is Kent Girl Coders, which exposes girls to science by inviting guest speakers in the field, Kaufman said.

The program aims at inspiring girls’ interests in science and helping them succeed in traditionally male-dominated careers, according to the district.

“A much greater proportion of girls in middle school say they are interested in STEM, but they tend to lose that interest by time they reach high schools,” said Gary Farina, the executive director at the Michigan STEM Partnership, which promotes statewide STEM education and workforce development.

Some reasons girls lose interest in STEM fields include peer pressure, lack of confidence in their abilities in math and science, and low awareness of career opportunities, Farina said.

“There have to be greater efforts in terms of career counseling and other kinds of activities to address whatever the causes are for that,” he said.

To inspire and keep female students’ interests in STEM fields, Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences, a graduate student organization at Michigan State University, connects and exposes children in K-12 to physics.

The traditional social impression that “science is for boys” could be the another reason for the lack of gender diversity in STEM fields, said Terri Poxon-Pearson, the organization’s president.

“Girls don’t learn to identify as ‘good’ at science or math and ‘leak’ out of the STEM pipeline,” Poxon-Pearson said.

The overall number of women physics majors and grad students has stalled at about 20 percent, and it seems hard to push past that percentage.

The Kent Career Tech Center also faces a gender imbalance problem in certain STEM fields and is trying to recruit nontraditional students in those areas, said John Kraus, the principal of the center.

“Our diesel technology program probably has 98 percent males, and the information technology program also has many males,” Kraus said. “Our overall percentage of students across the center is probably about 60 percent male and 40 percent female.”

To increase gender balance in STEM areas, Kraus suggested bringing women representatives in those areas to meet students at an early age to break gender stereotypes.

Inforum, a nonprofit organization based in Grand Rapids and Detroit, provides female role models to existing STEM programs for K-12 and post-secondary girls, as well as young women.

“We believe that exposure to successful women in STEM can help give girls and young women the confidence to prepare for STEM careers,” said Cindy Goodaker, the organization’s vice president of signature programs and communications.

After inspiring more girls to get into STEM fields, a further challenge is giving them the support to stay there, experts said.

“Many workplaces, particularly in academia, do not have well-defined, or very supportive, parental leave policies, which disproportionately disadvantage women in the field,” Poxon-Pearson said.

Most women in STEM workplaces have also experienced gender discrimination, according to a Pew Research Center national study conducted in 2017.

“Women are given less support, and have to ask more often than men for raises and promotions,” Goodaker said.


Campuses fight sexual misconduct with bigger toolboxes

Capital News Service

LANSING — Public universities across the state are finding new ways to reevaluate their Title IX anti-discrimination programs to prevent and reduce sexual misconduct on campuses.

The law prohibits sexual discrimination in educational programs funded by the federal government and has recently drawn intense public interest amid complaints that many U.S. campuses have been lax in complying.

Campuses each have their own ways of fighting sexual harassment and assault that include peer advocates, education at orientation about services available, and online lists of services and phone numbers.

Campus climate surveys are one of the newer tools for colleges to better understand where they can improve their compliance.  

“Because we know that very few people come forward to report sexual assault, Grand Valley continually and regularly uses confidential campus climate assessments to obtain data on how to make changes related to sexual assault,” said Jesse Bernal, the vice president of inclusion and equity at Grand Valley State University.

“What we know about sexual assault on college campuses is that 20 percent of women and 6 percent of men will be assaulted during their college career, and less than 12 percent of those cases are reported,” Bernal said.

Melody Werner, Eastern Michigan University Title IX coordinator, said, “The national statistics tell us that sexual assaults are vastly underreported.”

“If you take that (20 percent) statistic and multiply it by the number of students on your campus, then you come up with the number that you want to be reporting. If you assume it’s happening, then you want those report numbers to go up,” she said.

Werner estimates that her office has received more reports so far for the 2018-19 academic year than at the same point in previous years.

“We hope and believe that the number will continue to go up as more employees understand their responsibility as mandatory reporters and as more individuals believe that their accusation will be taken seriously by the office and the university,” Werner said.

Werner became Eastern’s Title IX coordinator in 2015. In 2016, she said, she began changing the school’s policies.

“Prior to Eastern hiring me as their Title IX coordinator, all sexual misconduct by students was a conduct violation,” Werner said. “If anyone was accused of it, or anyone said they had been sexually assaulted, then they would go through the student conduct process like any student with any other violation.

“The process involved throwing the parties together in a hearing,” Werner said. “That is not best practice, and that is not what Title IX guidance tells us to do.”

The scope and application of Title IX is determined through a combination of court rulings and federal guidance. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has issued 25 documents clarifying how colleges should apply the law.

All federally funded educational programs must have a Title IX coordinator for enforcement and education.

“We’re responsible any time students, faculty or staff is involved,” Felicia Crawford, Western Michigan University Title IX coordinator, said.

“What I and my staff find difficult is that, despite the best efforts to support and maintain safety for the parties involved, you’re going to wind up with one party that is unhappy,” Crawford said.

Another challenge for Title IX offices comes when complaints fall short of a civil rights violation or lack enough evidence to take action.

“The perception is that if you do nothing, you’re sweeping things under the rug and the university doesn’t care,” Crawford said.

“We really have to have a preponderance of evidence to have a finding” of sexual  discrimination, Crawford said. “If we don’t have that evidence, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It just means that there isn’t enough evidence to support it.”

On the other side, she said, “When we do find that there is a violation of our policy, then the responsible party feels that there is an overreach by Title IX.”

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act also means that universities can’t provide information on students involved in Title IX cases.

“When people are asking questions about a case, we’re not able to answer,” Crawford said.

University officials said they take measures to protect all their students from sexual harassment and discrimination.

For example, Grand Valley, Eastern and Central Michigan University each provide information to incoming students during orientation about Title IX and how to contact the university’s coordinator.

At Grand Valley, Theresa Rowland began changing university policy after starting as Title IX coordinator in 2015.

“We created an online learning module that specifically educates on policy definitions, created training for employees on how to report sexual harassment and built a team of investigators who are trained and certified in Title IX investigations,” Rowland said.

At Central, a pioneer in sexual harassment support services, a primary resource for students is the Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates (SAPA) organization with about 50 volunteers who receive an average of 60 hours of training annually. Advocates work in teams to respond to about 300 calls a year.

“Providing confidential services has been instrumental in making it comfortable for folks to reach out at a time when they might be uncomfortable and scared,” Brooke Oliver-Hempenstall, Central’s director of sexual aggression services, said.

She oversees the peer advocates who have programs covering stalking, rape culture, domestic violence, sexual aggression in the LGBTQ+ community and orientation for incoming students.

“Whether they are considering reporting or want to go to counseling, they know that they can contact SAPA and process out what their options are,” Oliver-Hempenstall said.