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ATYP-ical Education

ATYP student Emily Demlow, left, discusses her stamp carving project with Lorrie Abdo at the Kalamazoo Book Arts
Program offers accelerated courses for middle-schoolers

Think of it as middle school education on steroids.

Middle school students in the Academically Talented Youth Program learn English, math or computer science at the high school and college level and achieve in a semester what would normally take them an entire year.

Sounds intense. Would a middle-schooler really choose to do this voluntarily?

The answer is yes. In fact, a couple hundred of them are doing it.

“I chose ATYP because I felt that through elementary school and early middle school I wasn’t being challenged enough,” says Emily Demlow, a second-year ATYP English student and an eighth-grader at Lakeview Middle School in Battle Creek. “ATYP has been harder, but it’s also been much more rewarding.”

ATYP, housed at Western Michigan University, is a program that provides more-challenging education for students than what they would get through regular middle school courses. Through ATYP, students meet peers with similar mindsets and learn material two years ahead of their grade level in a collegiate-seminar manner. These advanced classes can also result in college credit and have a grading scale equivalent to honors classes offered at their home schools.

Started in 1981 by Carol McCarthy, a Kalamazoo parent passionate about gifted education, ATYP’s first class had 22 students enrolled in math. Currently there are more than 200 enrolled in ATYP math, English and AP Computer Science courses. Over the years, ATYP has enrolled almost 3,000 students from 60 Southwest Michigan schools.

ATYP courses differ from middle school classes due to their college-seminar style, where student discussions drive the learning. Due to the rigor and content of these courses, the faculty members also have to be well prepared. For example, ATYP English department faculty teach at a collegiate level, and math department faculty teach at a high school level.

“What we’re looking for (in faculty) is someone with a high level of content knowledge who also doesn’t mind being the dumbest person in the room,” says ATYP Director Kelly Schultz.

Becky Cooper teaches ATYP’s AP English classes in language, composition and literature. She has been teaching with ATYP since 1997 and chair of its English department since 2010. “I love being on this journey with them,” she says. “I love seeing every ‘aha’ moment, every smile of delight, every spark of scholarly fire in their faces. I appreciate how much they care about our explorations together, each other and the world around them.”

To recruit potential students, the program asks school districts and teachers to recommend students they think would qualify. This can mean students who either have high test scores on state exams, such as the M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress), or who think about math and English in a different way than their peers.

“Some of the things we ask teachers to consider are questions such as: Is the student getting bored or misbehaving? Are they not trying hard enough because they’re not challenged? Are they asking advanced questions or using advanced vocabulary?” says Nan Janecke, ATYP program coordinator.

In order to qualify for ATYP, students must take the SAT or ACT and receive the required test scores. For math, that’s 540 points or higher on the SAT and 20 points or higher on the ACT, with a combined math and reading score of 38 or greater. For those who have already taken algebra, a minimum of 570 points on the SAT math section is required or 22 points on the ACT with a combined math and reading score of 40 points or more. For ATYP’s English program, a minimum score of 520 is required on the SAT reading section or a combined ACT English and reading score of 46 points or more.

ATYP doesn’t limit the numbers of students it will admit; instead, the program creates classes based on the number of students who enroll. The teacher-student ratio is one teacher for every 15 to 17 students. In the past, students have traveled from as far away as Niles and Kent County to attend ATYP courses.

“We haven’t really found a practical limit yet for the number of students we can take,” says Schultz. “It just depends on how many teachers I can hire and classrooms I can get at WMU. I’m sure there is one, but we just haven’t found it yet.”

While finding teachers and classroom space hasn’t posed a problem for the program, the Covid-19 pandemic did, forcing the program to revamp courses for a virtual environment and close its Battle Creek program. Previously the Battle Creek program, which offered classes at WMU’s Battle Creek location, hosted four classes per year. Each class had seven students, and some students took both math and English.

“Our biggest challenge currently is rebuilding our Battle Creek classes and providing the students there with an academically challenging program,” says Janecke. “Currently, students from that area have to commute to Kalamazoo for those classes or hope that we have enough students who want to do it virtually.”

Another challenge for ATYP has been funding. ATYP is under the auspices of WMU’s Office of Pre-college Programming, and the university gives the program in-kind donations of space and services rather than direct funding. ATYP’s funding comes mostly from the students’ home schools, which pay tuition of $425 per class per semester for years one and two and $475 for years three and four.

Tuition accounts for 82 percent of ATYP’s budget and covers the salaries of its teachers but not that of its English coordinator or student scholarships. This is why donations — 11 percent of ATYP’s total budget — have become important for the program’s sustainability, says Schultz. Currently, ATYP gets donations from the WMU Foundation, the Zhang Scholarship and Endowment, parents and community members.

“Donations are becoming a bigger part of our budget,” she says. “Charles and Lynn Zhang (owners of a financial planning and investment firm based in Portage) donated money to cover all our scholarships for the year for students who can’t afford a calculator, books or registration fees. Their endowment also covers the cost of our English coordinator.”

But donations can only do so much for the program when schools, counselors, parents and students don’t know about the program’s existence.

“It’s hard getting the word out about ATYP to counselors in smaller school districts so they can tell their students to apply,” says Janecke. “We want to find students who would benefit from our program, but it’s hard to do that when people don’t know about us. I think what makes our program successful is the partnership we have with schools and that we are an academically challenging program that’s an affordable public-school option for kids and families.”

Some of the rewards of being in the program include high school credit while still in middle school and improved skills in writing, depth of analysis, grammar and reading as well as some life skills.
Those life skills have been particularly helpful for ATYP student Demlow.

“I’ve learned professionalism, time management and self-advocacy,” says Demlow. “There aren’t many ATYP students at my school, so I’ve learned to be polite when writing emails to say that I’ve already taken eighth-grade English. I’ll also be able to take substantial college credit while in high school, which will help me when getting into colleges and in college as well.”

Demlow travels from Battle Creek once a week to attend class, missing part of her regular school day.

“It’s not too hard to make up anything I’m missing. ATYP work is definitely harder than middle school work, but it hasn’t been harder for me to understand it,” she says.

Demlow also appreciates the relationships ATYP students forge with one another. “You can make lots of good relationships,” she says. “It’s useful when I have homework problems to reach out to classmates before my teacher, but it also makes the program more fun. It’s different when you have people you can talk to that share experiences.”

ATYP also offers half-day summer camps for sixth- to ninth-graders on topics such as cipher code breaking, chess, virtual reality and pinhole photography. ATYP campers do not need to take a test to qualify for the camps, and the camps do not count for credit.

“Any kid who is interested in the topic can come and take these camps,” says Schultz. “They are fun but also educational.”

Kalloli Bhatt

Kalloli is a Western Michigan University student majoring in journalism and a former Encore intern.

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