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GEARing up for learning

Jake Zatko, a sixth-grader at Superior Middle School, gets help on some homework from Jordan Buhr, a student from the University of Wisconsin-Superior at the middle school. Buhr and other UWS students in the GEARS program help SMS students with homework, projects and missing classwork. (Jed Carlson/

When the final school bell rings bringing the day to an end, students are smiling ear to ear, stuffing their textbooks into their backpacks and eagerly running out the door as they are now free from school. However, the day isn’t over for every student.

“I have to go to GEARS today,” said sixth grader Berkley Freund. “I have to finish my homework right after school.”

A number of Superior Middle School students will stay after school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for the Gain Early Awareness and Readiness program. The program started in January 2010 allows 29 students from the University of Wisconsin-Superior to help more than 30 Superior Middle School students with their missing classwork, homework, book projects and presentations. Many of the UWS students major in social work or education. They participate in GEARS because they want to be involved with the school and gain hands-on work experience.

“(Superior Middle School) Students can catch up in reading, English, math and a variety of other subjects,” said Marshall Disrude, GEARS coordinator. “It’s a lot of fun and it has definitely made a positive difference for everyone. The UWS students are role models for the kids.”

Superior Middle School teachers refer students to the program based on failing grades or other risk factors. The goal of the program is to help at-risk students prepare and attend high school, succeed in high school, increase retention and degree attainment among low-income and first generation college populations by engaging in academic service learning and building a sustainable community program.

“This is one of the original mentorship programs in Superior,” Disrude said. “The students and the program have come a long way since the beginning.”

The large sixth grade classroom is antsy on Thursday afternoons. A few students are in groups reading books while others are bouncing off the wall with energy.

UWS sophomore mentor Jordan Buhr, 19, is trying to calm the class down and get the students to do their work.

“This class can get pretty hectic on Thursdays,” Buhr said. “I feel some of them push the limits because they are at the age. Everyone respects everyone for the most part though and we all typically get along.”

Sixth graders Angelina Butler, 12, and Berkley Freund, 11, are working on a writing assignment in the corner. Buhr is helping them answer questions and quizzing them on what they know.

“My favorite part of GEARS is Jordan being here,” Butler said. “She is one of the best mentors you could have.”

Butler and Freund felt their first year in the GEARS program went well.

“I definitely think it has been successful, it helped us all,” Freund said. “Plus I like that we get snacks and free time after we finish our work.”

This is also Buhr’s first year as a GEARS mentor. Overall, she said, it was a great experience and she learned a lot from the students.

“Overall my year has been really cool,” Buhr said. “They definitely keep me on my toes. I love coming here every day and helping the students.”

The eighth grade classroom is a lot smaller than the sixth grade classroom. The class mostly works on math problems such as fractions, decimals and story problems.

“I will keep all of my notes with me next year for high school,” eighth grader Violet Cross said. “I went from having low grades to having higher grades.”

UWS junior mentor Emily Noble, 20, has been a mentor for nearly three years. She used to participate in after school programs when she was in middle school, so she does her best to stress the importance of school and earning good grades to the students.

“I just want them to understand the importance of school,” Noble said. “I didn’t always take school seriously when I was their age. I want them to work hard and continue their education far beyond the eighth grade.”

“Emily is so awesome; she is like a twin sister,” Cross said. “She helped me improve my math skills. Plus I have fun talking to her.”

UWS senior mentor Brooke Vonasek, 23, says she learns a lot about herself when she works with the eighth graders.

“I think every college student should try a semester of being a mentor,” Vonasek said. “It gives you a good perspective and the students are really appreciative of you. Not to mention you learn a lot about yourself and your abilities.”

Teachers and staff say GEARS is extremely beneficial and they see the students making positive significant changes.

“The mentors do a good job reaching out to the students,” said Sarah Bianchet, Math teacher and GEARS coordinator “The kids really respect the mentors. The mentors teach them if they believe in themselves then they can succeed.”

Sixth grade language arts teacher Melissa Isabella says she notices a great difference in the kid’s work ethic and behavior.

“The mentors play a huge part of the program’s success,” Isabella said. “Grades rise, participation increases … it’s all around a wonderful system.”

Superior Middle School and UWS officials hope GEARS will continue again next year. Right now, the school is looking for more funding. The grant that funds GEARS expires at the end of June. Great Lakes, the agency that provided the grant, will shift its focus to fund high school programming, so GEARS does not qualify for another grant from them.

“We are working on coming up with ways to keep the program running, a lot of it will depend on if there are funds available at the end of the budget cycle,” Disrude said.