Shepherd University's Washington Gateway Academy recently hosted 56 rising eighth-graders from across West Virginia.
The one-week residential, pre-college program is designed to encourage students to think about, plan and prepare for college.
Students from Barbour County who attended include Belington resident Mikaela Scott, a student at Belington Middle School; and Moatsville residents Casandra Triplett and Jacob Price, students at Kasson Elementary-Middle School.
Started in 1991, the program began when a group of legislators and officials at Shepherd were strategizing ways to use the university's proximity to the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metro area and also develop a program to prepare students for college. The Washington Gateway Academy is funded by the West Virginia Legislature, which covers the cost of counselors, instructors and field trips, allowing students to attend at no cost. When it was founded, the program was the first of its kind in the state.
Each year, Shepherd graduates or current students serve as counselors for the group. Students are taught by seasoned veterans of the Gateway Academy, including Ed Snyder, chair of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Shepherd and distinguished professor of environmental studies, who teaches study skills and science; Thomas Segar, vice president for student affairs at Shepherd who teaches social justice; Jason Best, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Shepherd and academic coordinator; Jamie Martino, who teaches college prep; and Richard McDonald, who teaches mathematics.
Topics include social justice, mathematics, science, career planning, study skills and community service.
Shepherd's Office of Student Community Services and Service Learning coordinated five service activities for the campers, including writing words of encouragement on a sheet for the Children's Home Society youth shelter; compassion training with the executive director from A Special Space, a new autism child care center that is opening in Charles Town; putting together Hero Packs for children in Jefferson and Berkeley counties whose parents or siblings are deployed; making dog toys for the Humane Society; and making pillows for the Infusion Clinic at Robinwood Medical Center.
During the seven-day stay at Shepherd's campus, two days are filled with field trips to the nation's capital, where students visit the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum. The group learned about John Brown's 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, traveled to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and ended the day at a Frederick Keys baseball game.
Best said the field trips allow students to actively use the skills they're learning by giving them target activities and showing them how to decipher between what is useful information and what isn't.
"It's all about them being engaged and a part of their classroom," Best said.
"They understand the importance of being here," Best said. "They have a desire to be the best at what they do, in West Virginia and beyond. Through their efforts, they take their first steps into a larger world. They now know that to achieve their desired occupation, they must believe in their own education."
John Adams, director of the Washington Gateway program, said the program is unique because it allows students to stay on a college campus and interact with professors and instructors as well as experience Washington, D.C.
"We're looking for the diamond in the rough," Adams said. "That kid who we know has the potential to do better in school and needs that little bit of a boost to get things on track. The classes are more about teaching people skills to perform better," Adams said.
The academy's results are shown in feedback from parents who each year tell Adams that they've seen an improvement in their child's grades. In its 22-year existence, more than 2,000 students have attended.
Carol Boyd, program coordinator for the academy, said the program attracts 250 to 350 applicants each year through informational brochures that are sent to all middle schools across West Virginia.
Emily Morris, counseling coordinator for Gateway, has worked with the program for the past eight years and said that she notices a change in the students between the time they arrive on campus and midweek.
"When they come in they're really shy and unsure of what's going on," Morris said. "By the mid-part of the week they've bonded and made friends with the rest of their group, and you really see their own personalities come out and you see the ones who step up and reach out to those who need a little extra help.
"The stuff they do in the math and science classes help them take ownership of their learning, and they have a much higher level of confidence in their own abilities," Morris said. "They're given challenging things to do."
A Facebook page is set up for former Gateway students, counselors and parents to follow along with their students activities while at the program at www.facebook.com/Washington.Gateway.
A Gateway Academy Scholarship fund was established with the Shepherd University Foundation in 2010 to be awarded to a former Gateway student who attends Shepherd.