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Climbing The Ladder

Why bright students stumble in college, and how Case Western Reserve University helps them get a leg up.

$80 million

a year is given in financial aid to undergraduates


Taneisha Deans graduated from high school with honors. She earned an associate’s degree from a local community college while in high school. She even published a scientific paper.

By all accounts, she should have been the kind of student who would flourish at Case Western Reserve University. Even so, she found herself sorely underprepared for the coursework she encountered as a first-year engineering major.

On her first day in introductory physics, Deans, a graduate of Glenville High School on Cleveland’s east side, realized she’d never even seen the math the professor was citing as review. Despite her efforts to learn as much as possible before arriving on campus, she quickly discovered she lacked the academic foundation required for much of her courseload.


of undergraduates are eligible for the Pell Grant program


Deans struggled through her first year of college. She lost her scholarship, and soon, the one-time standout student was in danger of failing out of school.

She turned to a campus mentor she had first connected with during high school, David Schiraldi, PhD. The chair of the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering, Schiraldi initiated the Polymer Envoys Program that operates in Cleveland high schools and in which Deans participated. An initiative of the Center for Layered Polymeric Systems, the program links promising high school students with university scholars for schoolyear, summer and research experiences.

Schiraldi knew Deans had great intellect and drive. She simply needed additional structure and assistance. He arranged for her to have a study table next to his office assistant, and he met with her weekly to review work.


pre-college programs offered at CWRU


Four years later, Deans has earned her undergraduate degree and a position as a graduate student in Schiraldi’s lab. She is determined to earn her doctorate, and Schiraldi is confident she’ll do that and more.

“She has the greatest will to succeed and the biggest heart of any student I have met,” he says.

Without Schiraldi’s involvement, Deans may not have made it. In recent years, Case Western Reserve’s leaders have begun to create more comprehensive structures for young people like her, so that promising students need not rely solely on personal ties for the assistance they need to succeed.


The challenges that low-income college students face are nearly limitless. It’s not simply inadequate academic preparation or lack of extracurricular learning opportunities throughout childhood. It’s also the substantial adjustment required to live and study with people whose resources—academic, cultural and economic—far outstrip their own. Little wonder, then, that the six-year graduation rate for low-income students stood at 12 percent in 2005, six times lower than the figure for high-income students.

$11 million

in campus resources invested in local high school programs


As the financial benefits of a college degree become ever more evident in a knowledge economy, scholars and policymakers have expanded their focus from encouraging college access to ensuring those admitted actually earn degrees. Key strategies for success include academic support, structured first-year experiences, intensive advising and an emphasis on peer collaboration.

As Deans found when she began to seek help, the university’s Educational Services for Students office provides critical assistance.

“They helped with test-taking skills, planning my schedule and overcoming my fear of asking for help from my professors,” Deans says.

The center also provides peer tutoring, supplemental instruction, writing help, individual academic counseling, study groups and workshops on topics such as time management, note-taking and study skills. In any given academic year, the office sees nearly 20,000 visits for tutoring and supplemental instruction.

As valuable as Deans found these programs, it was Schiraldi’s personal involvement that made the greatest difference.

“He has encouraged me to stay within the engineering field, even when I felt like I could never become an engineer,” Deans says. “I do not know where I would be if not for constant support from him.”

As a result of Deans’ struggles early in her college experience, Schiraldi and the macromolecular science and engineering department have expanded the envoy program from two years to three. This additional year allows for one-on-one tutoring in math and science during the first year, which enables the high school students to gain more from their two years of research, in addition to helping them with their academic performance in high school.


of undergraduates receive financial assistance


This early intervention also will enable students to take advanced coursework, like AP physics, chemistry and math—similar to the courses offered in highly rated high schools. Schiraldi hopes the program will become a model for other research universities in urban settings and drastically increase the number of underrepresented students from inner cities entering STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

The next evolution of the program, which is still in planning, he says, is to create an academy for ninth and 10th graders after school, on weekends and during the summers to teach the math, chemistry, physics and communication skills expected of incoming students at top universities.

“Taneisha taught us what is needed,” Schiraldi says. “We don’t want to make future students have to pay such a price for their education.” emergingscholars

Emerging Scholars


first-year students participate in the Emerging Scholars Program each year


In 2010, the Joan C. Edwards Charitable Foundation announced an extraordinary initiative. As part of its founder’s desire to increase the availability of quality medical care in areas that need it most, the foundation committed to fund a full, four-year scholarship, awarded each year to an incoming student at Case Western Reserve preparing for a medical career. Upon graduation, each recipient would, if qualified, receive a full-tuition scholarship to the university’s School of Medicine.

The eligible students would come from the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine (CSSM) at John Hay High School, which already had a strong relationship with Case Western Reserve. Medical students and faculty from the School of Medicine provide tutoring and lectures to the high school students, and undergraduates provide additional academic support. Now the university wanted to increase its engagement—and ensure Edwards scholarship recipients excelled once they arrived.

A team of campus leaders from enrollment management, the medical school and the College of Arts and Sciences began meeting to chart out ways to enhance support for the John Hay students. Brian A. McDonald, the foundation’s executive director, engaged often with the university team and with staff and students at CSSM, exhorting all parties to identify the best approaches to realize the late Mrs. Edwards’ dream.

Stephen Haynesworth, PhD, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, began his own survey of research on student success. He found some of the most compelling ideas in the writings of Uri Treisman, a math professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who conducted groundbreaking research assessing why minority students struggled in college—and what interventions played the greatest role in their success. Treisman found students who learned to work with one another and who had sustained faculty engagement were most likely to thrive.

Haynesworth, also an associate professor of biology, worked with colleagues across the university to create a summer program that would give promising students some of the experiences and skills essential to their long-term success. The initiative would benefit Edwards scholarship recipients as well as other Northeastern Ohio students admitted to Case Western Reserve.

Now in its second year, the Emerging Scholars Program brings a cohort of entering students to campus for a six-week summer session. These young people, who come from a variety of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, take math and writing classes and participate in workshops on study skills and other topics that prepare them for college life.

“The goal is to give students a game plan,” Haynesworth says. “It’s a professional development program. It ensures that they are going to perform at a high level. This program models for them what a successful college student does.”

By the end of the summer, students have earned six college credits and built connections with a core group of peers and faculty. They receive full scholarships to cover the summer courses and a $3,000 stipend to help with living expenses and make up for the money they would have earned by working at summer jobs.


tutoring and supplemental instruction appointements are made at the Education Services for Students ofice every year


Once the semester begins in the fall, the Emerging Scholars continue to engage with faculty and staff.

“We meet regularly with them through the first year and beyond,” Haynesworth says. “Ordinarily, when students struggle, they’ll often tend to try to figure things out on their own, and by the time their advisers find out about the problem, the students are pretty far behind. We’re able to check in with them and direct them to the right people to help them when they need it.”

Hajar Khalil entered the program in the summer of 2011, at the start of its inaugural year.

“It was a great opportunity to get a feel for what college classes are like and to build relationships with faculty members and other students,” she says. “Entering my first semester of college already knowing people and having made friends made it much less stressful.”

For her part, Taneisha Deans chose to spend the summer after graduation giving back to Cleveland students.

She taught science, engineering and math to students ages 10 to 16 in the National Youth Sports Program at Case Western Reserve.

“It feels really good to be able to open kids’ minds to engineering and science fields,” she says. “One thing that has always been stressed by Dr. Schiraldi is, ‘Once you become successful, don’t forget to turn around and help pull someone else up the ladder.’”

Opening the Pipeline

Nichelle Ruffin, a graduate of the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine, is Case Western Reserve University’s first recipient of a scholarship through the Joan C. Edwards Charitable Foundation’s Health Professions Pipeline Program. The award was established with a $10 million gift in 2010, with the goal of attracting highly qualified local minority and low-income students to study medicine.

The scholarship will cover Ruffin’s tuition, room, board and other expenses during the course of her undergraduate career, as well as four years of tuition at the School of Medicine, bringing the total value of the award to nearly a half-million dollars.


high schoolers participate in the Polymer Envoys Program each year


Ruffin took part in the university’s Emerging Scholars Program this summer to help her prepare for her coursework, and she will receive regular mentoring from the School of Medicine’s associate dean for student affairs, Robert Haynie, MD, PhD.

“This young lady has a level of maturity that goes beyond her years,” says Haynie. He adds that he and a host of other professionals will be at Ruffin’s side throughout her academic career to make sure she has access to the resources that will make her successful.

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