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A Sense of Hope

Above: Elementary students who toured campus experienced a number of things, including the TV studio in IUP’s Communications Media Department. Here, two university students explain the board to a Promise Plus student. Of all the things the students saw and did, their favorite by far was lunch in the Folger Food Court. Mary Ann Rafoth said they were surprised by the variety of food and the fact that they could take as much as they wanted. Photo: Kassi Cheatle

Over a weekend last year, Mary Ann Rafoth formulated a plan that her college’s faculty has come to embrace like proud parents.

Rafoth, the dean of IUP’s College of Education and Educational Technology, strung together several initiatives on which her faculty was working and added an element of structure. As a result, the college is providing the Pittsburgh Public Schools with a program that complements the Pittsburgh Promise and Pathways to the Promise.

The Pittsburgh Promise is a college scholarship opportunity sponsored by the Pittsburgh Foundation for students in the school system. Pathways to the Promise is the city school system’s plan for preparing students for college, enabling them to take advantage of the scholarship.

Mary Ann Rafoth

Mary Ann Rafoth

“There really wasn’t anything in place that gave the kids the expectation and confidence that they could actually go to college,” Rafoth said, “and there wasn’t anything going on early in the education process for the parents of those students that helped them understand that their kids could go to college and that there would be financial aid. Something was needed that throughout the students’ education would support the idea of being college bound.”

Creative thinking on the part of Rafoth and her colleagues earned funding from the Heinz Endowments and set IUP Promise Plus in motion.

More than a dozen IUP faculty and staff members are involved in the program, which brings elementary students to campus for day visits, so they can begin to see and feel what a college campus is like. It includes programming for parents—sometimes over a meal—so that they understand the program and can explore ways to support their children’s pursuit of higher education. And, it includes a week-long residential program for high school students.

“IUP was a totally different atmosphere to me. Going away taught me independence and responsibility.”

Still in the planning stage is a mentoring program that would allow IUP students with appropriate state clearances to provide direct counsel to students in person and through e-mail and other Internet-based tools. Feedback is sought for each of the activities currently offered, so IUP’s staff members can continually improve on the services they provide.

“By doing these things, we could offer them a continuous support system,” Rafoth said. “So we put it together—as the third leg of what was already occurring in Pittsburgh. We provide the connection to college.”

Those most intimately involved discussed why IUP Promise Plus is important—and unique in the region.

Get Them Early

Shirley Howard Johnson

Shirley Howard Johnson

Rafoth, who serves as the program’s director, described an interview she gave Bill Flanagan on WPXI’s Our Region’s Business. She said Flanagan asked if students from Pittsburgh were pursuing the idea of college, why not put on a supplemental program like Promise Plus at one of the Pittsburgh universities?

“Being urban campuses, those places blend into the city,” Rafoth said. “They don’t have for our kids an identity of college as a place they go away to. One of the things we’ve found is that many of the kids have never been away from the city. When they come here, they see ‘college.’”

Shirley Howard Johnson ’75, M’80, a professor in IUP’s Professional Studies in Education Department who is serving as an assistant program director, agreed.

“When you’ve had that different experience, you can make a better choice about how you want to do it and where you want to do it,” said Johnson, who grew up in Clairton and made her way to IUP as an undergraduate. “For me, going to school in Pittsburgh would not have been like going to school. It would have felt like I was just going downtown or to Oakland. But, IUP was a totally different atmosphere to me. Going away taught me independence and responsibility.

“Coming here gives the students exposure to a different environment,” she said. “And, environment is key for many students to be successful. I think IUP is a great place to bring students to show them what college can be like. There is so much to be learned from a change in environment—in terms of personal and professional growth.”

Monte Tidwell

Monte Tidwell

Monte Tidwell, also a professor in the Professional Studies in Education Department and another assistant program director, has coordinated IUP’s urban track for future teachers. He thinks expanding students’ options beyond the city is desirable for other reasons.

“A lot of the principals, teachers, and parent liaisons think it’s important that students are exposed to a predominantly white campus, because that mirrors the real world they’ll be having careers in,” Tidwell said. “So, I think campus visits really have an impression on them. They talk about it constantly when they return to school. If it’s continual—visits from fourth through eighth grades and into high school—then they’re going to be comfortable with it. We’re not pushing IUP to them—although we’d like it if they attended school here.”

Becky Graham Knickelbein

Becky Graham Knickelbein

Becky Graham Knickelbein ’74, M’84, who teaches in IUP’s Special Education Department and also handles Promise Plus program evaluation, feels giving the students exposure in the elementary years is the key to their later success.

“You get them before it’s too late,” she said. “At a young age, they still think it’s possible. They still have that academic self-esteem in fourth and fifth grade, and generally, students’ self-esteem is tied up in other things by the time they reach ninth or tenth grade.”

The day visits for elementary students have included everything from visiting the campus television station to touring the residence halls and athletics facilities to having lunch in a campus dining hall. Tours last year included a program in the Special Collections area of Stapleton Library, where librarians showed them artifacts and maps related to the university’s collection on the coal industry.

“We’ve been working in Pittsburgh for a long time in low-income and community schools,” Tidwell said. “We have a really strong commitment to the kids in these communities. You know, if you go into a district like Fox Chapel [a suburban district], an assumption just permeates the place that everyone is going to go to college. In the communities we’re working in, that assumption just doesn’t exist. In fact, the kids often receive the opposite message—that they aren’t going to make it. We have to turn that around. The teachers in our partner schools are committed to changing that culture to one of a culture of success. They see our program as a big part of helping with that effort.”


According to Rafoth, her college’s faculty members are working on several projects that support IUP Promise Plus. They include Tidwell’s effort to start Future Educators of America clubs at schools in the district and an exploratory project encouraging African American males to become teachers. The latter project, which also received funding from the Heinz Endowments, is led by Robert Millward, who oversees one of the college’s doctoral programs.

“The teachers in our partner schools are committed to changing that culture to one of a culture of success.”

“But, none of this works unless you get the students early,” Rafoth said.

Knickelbein said the relationship with the Pittsburgh schools is a necessity for IUP education majors.

“IUP students need an urban experience, so building a relationship with the district—and this kind of program—does that,” Knickelbein said. “It entices the district to welcome our students into their classrooms. We are required to offer an urban component, and we need a positive relationship with the district to do that.”

Johnson said she believes the collaborative relationship IUP has with the Pittsburgh Public Schools has extended to the families and communities.

“When there’s a collaborative between research and practical experience, I believe that’s the best model you can have, because we’re all going to grow,” she said. “When I attended a parent meeting at an elementary school, the parents didn’t feel their children had hope. But after Monte made a presentation to them and then a graduate student and I presented, the whole atmosphere changed. After those presentations, they had a sense of hope for their children. That’s very valuable for the future of IUP, for the future of the school district, and for the future generation.”

The Residential Program

Melvin Jenkins

Melvin Jenkins

Melvin Jenkins M’92, a faculty member in IUP’s Developmental Studies Department, oversees the program’s summer high school component. During the school year, he met with ninth grade students and their parents several times in Pittsburgh in preparation for the week the students would spend at IUP last summer.

Sixteen arrived for the week-long program. Two did not complete the week—one student left because of severe homesickness and another for behavioral reasons.

“I’m telling you that, because what we experienced was more than just trying to get some kids college ready. We experienced some of the emotional side of teenage life,” Jenkins said, acknowledging that the same problems could have occurred with a group of students from any background.

The group stayed in one of the university’s residence halls and was supervised by graduate students. Promise Plus students took three classes a day—modified for their grade level—in mathematics, English, and learning strategies and enjoyed various forms of recreation.

Jenkins said he would like to change next year’s programming to include more cocurricular recreational activities. He also hopes—with all appropriate approvals from the Pittsburgh Public Schools board—to host the same students next year as tenth graders for two weeks, in addition to having a new group of ninth graders come to campus for one week.

“It seems like when they’re in the city, they do as the city does,” he said. “Coming out here allowed them to be something other than what they would have to have been in the city. They still got to do what they would have in the city—ride the bus, go to McDonald’s, and that sort of thing—but it was without the city distractions.

“For the first couple of days they were here, they were wearing their tough skins, but as the week went on, they wore down. Some of them really opened up and started to talk about some very personal stuff. And, I don’t think that kind of stuff would have come out had we had this program in an urban environment—even at an urban university.”

There were, Jenkins said, high points and low points of the week.

“The low point was discovering that not everybody was meant to be in this program,” he said, referring to the two who did not finish. “The high points were watching the students connect—with each other and with our staff, watching relationships form, watching them bond to their classes and their professors.”

Jenkins acknowledged that without the assistance of the Heinz Endowments, the residential experience would not have happened.

“I want people to know we can make a difference in young people’s lives,” he said. “I want people to know we can pluck kids out of a bad situation one at a time—or fourteen at a time—and change their lives.”

More from the Fall-Winter 2010 Issue of IUP Magazine

Double Vision

Double Vision

IUP’s University Museum hosted Paint & Pixels, an exhibition of identical twins Ron Donoughe’s oil paintings and Don Donoughe’s graphic design.

Oceans in Deep

Oceans in Deep

In the wake of last spring’s oil-rig catastrophe, two IUP professors talk about what can be done to restore the oceans to health.

Above the Caption

Stephenson Hall, Pratt Plaza, Heritage Garden, and a view from the sky


Highlights about IUP faculty members, past and present


Athletic Hall of Fame inductions, sports update, and the Coal Bowl Trophy

IUP Magazine Web Exclusives

Pittsburgh’s Funny Guy

Pittsburgh’s Funny Guy

October 15, 2010
Jim Krenn ’83 talks about how he came to sit behind the microphone at WDVE.

Honoring, Remembering Our Own

Honoring, Remembering Our Own

August 21, 2010
IUP honors those lost in service to their country.

Professor Shari Robertson and her daughter Brianna Robertson ’09

Diphthongs and Dahntahn

June 30, 2010
What distinguishes our Western Pennsylvania dialect?