New youth program in Flint aims to transform mindsets and empower communities

FLINT, Michigan — Since 2015, GEARup2LEAD, a non-profit 501c3 organization located in Flint, has been looking for ways to reach disengaged youth living within Genesee County. In addition to the organization hosting an annual conference and providing teacher training at no cost, GEARup Academy was established to offer an alternative learning setting for high school students.

During 2015 and 2016, eight high school students enrolled in GEARup Academy and spent their time working on both academics and community service projects. Since that time, GEARup Academy, led by GEARup2LEAD Executive Director, Winston Stoody, and GEARup2LEAD High School Director, Kelly Rogers, has now grown to educate between 80-100 students per year. Last year, the organization expanded to offer programs for 4th-8th grade students.

The newest program, GEARup2GROW, was spearheaded by Nicole Hartley who stepped away from her teaching position to start a program “that challenges the traditional status quo education students are accustomed to receiving." The GEARup2GROW program aims at teaching the G.E.A.R. concepts of Growth Mindset, Empathy, Action, and Responsibility reflecting the organization’s mission of transforming mindsets to empower and inspire communities. 

Growth Mindset
Research over the last two decades points to a strong correlation between self-efficacy and learning. The GEARup2LEAD staff knows that to believe in oneself is to believe we can accomplish anything we put our minds to. The students within the GEARup2GROW program are taught the difference between having a Growth Mindset and a Fixed Mindset. Having a Growth Mindset means they are able to see themselves facing challenges head-on, finding ways to learn difficult content, and not being afraid to leave their comfort zones. 

When asked what exactly a Growth Mindset means, a 7th-grade GEARup2GROW student explained, “I look at my school work and other challenges now as a game or a challenge I have to figure out. I used to see it as a wall or like a stop sign not allowing me to learn new things.” Her 5th-grade classmate added, “Having a Growth Mindset means I am never at the end of the race. I am always looking for new challenges." 

Empathy
Hartley spends time during the day having conversations with her learners on a variety of real-life topics and always includes the word "why" such as 'Why do you think this is happening?' or 'Why would she have said that?'" According to Nicole, the word "why" allows the learners to think more deeply, placing themselves in other people’s shoes to develop a sense of empathy as they try to figure out the answers.  

A 6th-grade student, during a morning meeting, said it best when asked what exactly is empathy? “Empathy to me is when I help my friend who looks different, speaks different, and comes from a different family but I know exactly how she is feeling. This helps me understand how I can help her.”

Action
The GEARup2GROW students know that when they do something, there must be a meaningful outcome. Doing a math worksheet during the school day to enhance their skills cannot just end there. These enhanced skills must then lead to solving bigger and deeper problems. GEARup2GROW recently visited 100K Ideas for a field trip, or as Hartley calls them, 'community engagement trips.' 100K Ideas is an organization located in Flint that helps entrepreneurs take ideas and turn them into real businesses. After the visit and listening to the students’ business plans, the 100K Ideas staff could not believe how engaged and attentive the students were.

Hartley was not surprised by the observation and stated, “When kids are taking action, doing something that leads to a meaningful and purposeful outcome, they own their learning. When they own their learning and it isn't something I, or someone else, places upon them, they are engaged, determined to take action to solve problems and make the wrongs right. When we place the learning on them and not make it their own, we are simply creating complacent, co-dependent learners that see no need to take action.”

Responsibility
Expecting 4th-8th-grade students to have a Growth Mindset and a sense of Empathy while taking Action to be leaders within their community seems to be a big ask. However, if you listen to the students sitting around the room discussing their learning experiences, you begin to wonder if this approach is simply a natural process for young learners that is sometimes squelched within a traditional setting.

A GEARup2GROW 8th-grade student that spent last year in a juvenile detention center, after being kicked out of multiple schools, shared his thoughts on the difference between the program and his other experiences in a classroom. “I feel like I am in control of my day," he said. "I am starting a business and learning math, reading, and writing while creating my business plan. I feel smart and I feel like I will be successful.”

Rogers, who has been the High School Director of GEARup2GROW since 2016, has observed how students grow each year due to the responsibilities they are given and the support they receive to help them achieve their goals. “With responsibility comes challenges and with challenges come failures," she said. "I have witnessed our learners succeed only because they have failed. We celebrate the failures and learn from them. Responsibility gives us purpose.”

GEARup2GROW is a project-based learning micro-school comprised of 4th-8th grade students. The students experience a hybrid schedule, attending in-person on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and learning remotely on Mondays and Fridays.

GEARup2LEAD is located inside The Sylvester Broome Empowerment Center in Flint, MI. You may learn more about GEARup2GROW by visiting the GEARup2LEAD website at: gearupflint.com