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10/12/2012 7:30 AM -

The Griffins Youth Foundation is expanding educational opportunities within its hockey program to get more kids thinking about college.

Story by Mark Newman

Kids who play hockey want to learn to improve, and the Griffins Youth Foundation wants to make certain that’s not all they learn.

Established in 1995, the foundation strives to enhance the lives of area youth by providing opportunities to play hockey and ice-related sports, but the organization also seeks to promote academic excellence, community involvement and healthy lifestyles among the kids it serves.

In recognition that academic success ultimately benefits a youngster more in the long run, the foundation is making education a greater priority, not only in its mission statement (where it is now listed first) but also in practice.

“Our focus has always been hockey and it will continue to be the driving force behind the foundation, but we recognize that we need to emphasize academic excellence for the good of the kids,” said Bob Kaser, Griffins vice president of community relations and broadcasting, who serves as the president of the Griffins Youth Foundation.

“As much as we would love to see a couple of the kids in our program develop and earn hockey scholarships, we realize the chances of that happening are not very good. In the meantime, we want to do what we can to make sure we’re looking after the well-being of our kids by doing more educationally.”

To help steer the organization in the right direction, the foundation sought an experienced educator who could provide guidance and advice as a member of its board of directors.

“We’re very happy to welcome aboard Dr. Eric Nelson,” Kaser said. “We look forward to implementing many of his exciting ideas, which are based on his many years of experience, both as a teacher and administrator,” Kaser said.

Nelson is senior director of school quality for the Grand Rapids-based National Heritage Academies (NHA), one of the fastest growing public charter school management companies in the United States. NHA currently has 74 schools in nine states, including Colorado, Indiana, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Nelson oversees 24 schools for NHA, which partners with local school boards to build and manage no-cost public charter schools. Founded on the four pillars of academic excellence, moral focus, parental partnership and student responsibility, NHA schools are designed to eliminate the achievement gap among social-economic strata and provide public school choice to families so that their children are prepared for success in high school, college, and beyond.

“I’m super excited on both professional and personal levels for this opportunity,” Nelson said. “I’m thrilled that the Griffins Youth Foundation has decided to highlight the educational component of their mission, an effort that mirrors our work at National Heritage Academies.

“From a personal standpoint, I grew up in very poor circumstances and never had the opportunity to play hockey, so for me, it’s going to be a pleasure to work with the Griffins Youth Foundation in light of all that it does to give kids a chance to participate.”

The foundation’s renewed emphasis on education began a couple of years ago when it began offering annual scholarships that award $5,000 to a pair of students to attend the college or university of their choice.

In addition, the foundation has forged partnerships with area universities to allow kids to visit college campuses and get exposed to higher education. The past two years have seen kids make visits to Ferris State University and Davenport University.

Cornerstone University, meanwhile, has pledged financial support as well as the possibility of student interns to act as mentors or tutors.

“Whether it’s a community college or a four-year university, we want to make sure that our kids know that the pursuit of an education beyond high school is a real possibility,” Kaser said. “We want to open doors for the kids who play in our program.”

Getting kids to improve their reading is an essential step, according to Nelson.

“There is a high correlation between reading level and a student’s ability to get into college and ultimately be successful,” Nelson said. “For younger kids, it’s critical to emphasize reading. For older kids, it’s important to prepare them to be college-ready.”

Nelson said the foundation offers a great platform to encourage students to start thinking about college. “When you tell students that the difference in lifetime earnings between a high school dropout and a college graduate will be $1 million, it gets their attention,” Nelson said.

To assist younger students in their efforts to improve their reading, the foundation is looking into expanding its library. Older students, meanwhile, will benefit from practice tests that will help them prepare for the ACT test.

Nelson has seen what can happen when schools make a commitment to help students prepare for high school, college and beyond. In the last five years, NHA schools ranked in the top 25 percent of U.S. schools for academic growth.

“Our approach is the ‘whole child,’ which parallels the efforts of the Griffins,” Nelson said. “Playing hockey is fun, but we need to be realistic and encourage kids and their families to think about college.”

To implement the new education initiatives, the foundation has enlisted the help of Wendy Foy as its new education coordinator. “We want to make sure the emphasis is still on fun,” Kaser said. “We don’t want their Saturdays to be an extension of school. We want to get kids excited about reading.”

In addition to the emphasis on academic excellence, the foundation will also promote community involvement through participation in such projects as Adopt-A-Highway and the Grand River Cleanup.

To encourage healthy lifestyles, the foundation is making available a pamphlet from the Center For Physical Rehabilitation. The pamphlet contains information regarding the treatment of basic sports injuries, concussion signs, and nutrition for young athletes.

“We want the foundation to serve as a great resource for kids and their families,” Kaser said. “Hockey will always be our primary vehicle, but we want to reach out to help kids improve their educational experience and, ultimately, become active, healthy contributors to our community.”

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