Dr. Chery Wagonlander A Model Educator Retires

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On the campus of Mott Community College exists a smaller school, a different school – set up to function differently with the sole purpose of helping students who learn differently. Known as “slipaway” students, they may need extra help with their studies, or encouragement, or help with emotional or economic needs, or perhaps a challenge better than those provided at a traditional high school.

The students come from all over Genesee County, each bringing a unique set of challenges. Maybe they were being relentlessly bullied at their former school, maybe they had to slip away from school to help their family, maybe they were bored in class and needed something more. Whatever the reason, this little school at MCC exists solely to provide the access and equity these students deserve to have a fair chance at college and personal success. The school is Mott Middle College (MMC) and its mission is to “prepare high school, at-risk students for a successful work and educational future through the full integration of high school, community college and the world of work.”

Since its start in 1991, MMC has helped thousands of students go on to succeed at the college level and beyond and it is all due in part to the tireless work of Flint’s own Dr. Chery Wagonlander. Through her years of effort, MMC has become a national model and a catalyst for the national middle/early college movement in education. “The opportunity fell upon me,” says Wagonlander. “It’s about providing equity and accessibility to the County’s disadvantaged students. Not once did I think it wouldn’t work. It simply had to.”

“We want every student to find themselves and be exposed to what’s possible.”

Dr. Chery Wagonlander

Growing up a stone’s throw from Oak School on tiny Atwood St. in Flint, it seems young Chery was destined for a career in education. “I ran a school on my front porch for stuffed animals and friends,” she smiled in memory. She attended Flint Central High and then Flint Southwestern, and after graduation enrolled at Mott Community College to pursue a career in medicine. “My plan was to become a medical doctor but, when I got to MCC, that track wasn’t available,” she remembers. “I could become a nurse or an educator. I was too proud to become a nurse – I wanted to be a doctor; so instead, I chose to become a doctor of kid’s minds.” With her course set, Wagonlander pursued her career through courses at MCC, UM-Flint, UM-Ann Arbor for her master’s level work, Oakland University for her specialist degree, and Eastern Michigan University for her doctorate. Next, she took a teaching job at Ferris State University before accepting a leadership position at The Valley School in Flint. When the opportunity came to build and run MMC, Wagonlander answered the call.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, state and local educators were becoming concerned about the huge dropout rates of high school students and college freshman,” explains Wagonlander. “The Mott Foundation, Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD) and Michigan Department of Education were looking for a local approach to addresss the dropout rate.” The middle college concept was their direction. It began with the work of psychologist Janet Lieberman and the establishment of the first middle college at LaGuardia College in New York in 1973. The education model targeted potential “at-risk” students who were struggling in traditional high schools. It was thought that the change of location (a college campus) and a new educational environment characterized by adult norms of commitment to studies, responsibility, more mature behavior, and new avenues of support could make a difference. “The success was phenomenal,” adds Wagonlander. Still, just copying the LaGuardia model wouldn’t work for the local plan. Mott Middle College would need to serve students from more than one district – it had to work with all Genesee County school districts. Wagonlander got busy contacting all of the districts and met with local leadership. “I asked them to send students who teachers could identify as ‘high-risk,’ maybe ten or 12 per school, and they responded.”

Dr. Chery and her husband, artist and teacher Charles “Fred” wagonlander

In 1991, with thanks to a generous start-up grant from the Mott Foundation, Michigan became the seventh state in the nation to offer the new education model and MMC became the country’s first multi-district middle college. Since its initial support, the Mott Foundation has provided more than $2.6 million to develop the school’s instructional model and innovative curriculum. “We couldn’t have done it without the support of the Mott Foundation, GISD and Michigan Department of Education. They have been amazing,” Wagonlander states. Soon after its establishment, MMC was chosen as one of five national models that provided a blueprint of middle and early college success. As early as 1996, MMC and Wagonlander began coaching other middle colleges across the country.

The Middle College model is based on four basic principles:

  • College-focused academic program: school curricula provide a bridge to postsecondary studies that incorporate both high school and college coursework,
  • Student academic and social/emotional support throughout their high school years,
  • High school/college collaboration: High schools and colleges take joint responsibility for students’ success and establish structures that permit high school students to take college courses; and
  • Culture of continuous improvement: High schools and colleges engage in evidence-based discussions to continuously improve the student experience.

MMC strives to adapt all directions and decisions around these principles and the students have been reaping the rewards.

All MMC grads are expected to complete the State of Michigan Merit Curriculum requirements, approved College Readiness Curriculum, a minimum of 15 college credit hours and either 100 hours of community service or a minimum of 40 hours of career exploration, internship or clinical experience (or a combination of two that equals more than 70 hours). Some students graduate with an associate degree from MCC or the maximum of 60 transferable college credits – it is all up to the students. “Every MMC enrollee is a college student,” says Wagonlander. “It is not a choice. Students who graduate with college credits are more likely to attend and finish college. They are invested in the opportunity.”

In addition to the standard middle college requirements, MMC mandates a student take a class in the fine arts. “We want every student to find themselves and be exposed to what’s possible,” says Wagonlander. At the end of their journey, students take a graduate survey answering questions about self-efficacy – How do they view themselves? “We have 95% self-efficacy rates and students say they feel prepared for the future,” says former MMC Principal, Margaret Green. “It’s one of our favorite outcomes.”

In 2019, Dr. Wagonlander received the Genesee County foundation’s “everyday hero” award.

There are three other big ways that MMC sets itself apart from traditional high schools. For one, MMC students attend high school for a fifth year. “When looking through the data, we found that some students were dropping out after their freshman year of college and realized that some were not socially ready for it. They needed just one more year,” explains Wagonlander. Each student’s educational development plan is designed to include a fifth year. For many, the final year includes community service, internships and college courses, all free of charge. Next, MMC undergoes constant adjustments that help tailor curriculum to alleviate student need. “We listen to our teachers and counselors as to what students are struggling with each year,” says Green. “For example, if they are coming in with low reading levels, we adjust to help fix the issue.” How they address student needs is also unique. “Our teachers design the curriculum,” Green states. “It’s not handed to them from above.” Wagonlander says with a smile, “I’ve learned to say ‘yes’ over the years I acted as principal and it has led to some amazing lessons and dedicated teachers. Our Puppet Theatre, for instance – I would have never guessed it would work so well.”

In an effort to bolster Michigan’s middle/early college movement, Wagonlander established the Michigan Early/Middle College Association (MEMCA) in 2005 as a local affiliate of the Middle College National Consortium with the purpose of increasing the collegiate and post-secondary success and completion rate of Michigan youth. The group meets annually to share best practices, concerns and new student trends. Since its creation, Wagonlander has worked as executive director continuing her mission of helping establish middle colleges throughout the state. This past November, Wagonlander officially retired from the position and handed the reins to Margaret Green; however,the dedication to middle college education continues for Wagonlander as she offers advice and suggestions for direction to Green and MEMCA.

In Michigan, the MMC education model has been a revelation for educators, parents and students. Wagonlander is considered the Godmother of all things middle/early college in Michigan and, through her efforts of over 40 years, has touched countless lives. Recently, the Michigan Department of Education, in partnership with MEMCA, announced the Dr. Chery S. Wagonlander Early Middle College Excellence in Practice Awards to honor her efforts and those of future educators.

When asked, most MMC grads will say, “I don’t know where I would be today without Mott Middle College.” For their opportunity, those graduates can thank the work of one woman: Dr. Chery Wagonlander.

Congratulations, Dr. Wagonlander on your retirement and thank you for your years of remarkable dedication and contributions to education.

Mott Middle College is open to everyone (including homeschoolers). If you think MMC is the best choice for you or your student, speak to your local district administrators or teachers to apply.

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2 Comments

  1. I don’t know where I would be without Dr. Wagonlander. I experienced one of the worst tragedies of my life in her office and she was immediately there to help me through it. Mott Middle was the best high school experience! I don’t think I would have graduated with my master’s and been where I am today without MMC or Dr. Wagonlander. Mott Middle kids were/are so lucky to have had her.

  2. Dr. Deborah Shanley on

    Congratulations on a wonderful career, Dr. Wagonlander! All of your students have been given a range of opportunities to find a deep purpose and reach for the stars. Warm wishes for an exciting retirement, Deb

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