GEAR UP Kentucky putting low-income students on path to success

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Aaron Meadows, center, a 7th- and 8th-grade history teacher at Paris Middle School (Paris Independent) watches as his students vie for T-shirts being thrown into the crowd at a kickoff celebration for GEAR UP Kentucky at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. Photo by Mike Marsee, Sept. 25, 2019
Aaron Meadows, center, a 7th- and 8th-grade history teacher at Paris Middle School (Paris Independent) watches as his students vie for T-shirts being thrown into the crowd at a kickoff celebration for GEAR UP Kentucky at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. The program will serve students in 12 school districts during its fourth grant cycle.
Photo by Mike Marsee, Sept. 25, 2019
  • GEAR UP Kentucky will serve more than 12,000 students through the 2024-2025 school year.
  • Students who participate in GEAR UP apply to and enroll in postsecondary education at a higher rate than their peers nationally.

By Mike Marsee
mike.marsee@education.ky.gov

Aaron Meadows’ students are starting to ask some questions he hasn’t heard before.

It has been only about a month since GEAR UP Kentucky launched at Paris Middle School (Paris Independent), where Meadows teaches 7th- and 8th-grade history.

“Our kids are starting to ask questions like, ‘What am I going to do when I get older?’ ‘How am I going to get there?’” Meadows said. “We have seen a huge amount of impact that GEAR UP has had on our 7th-graders.”

Paris Independent is one of 12 school districts in which students will benefit from the most recent GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) grant awarded to Kentucky by the U.S. Department of Education (USED). It continues a program that has been in place in the state for about 20 years.

About 400 7th- and 12th-grade students from Paris Independent and Bourbon County schools visited Eastern Kentucky University on Sept. 25 for a kickoff celebration for GEAR UP Kentucky, while students in other participating districts watched a livestream of the event.

For many of Meadows’ students, it was their first visit to a college campus.

“It’s good for the kids in Paris to experience what Richmond is like, what Morehead is like, to see Lexington even though it’s only 30 minutes away, to let them know what’s available to them,” Meadows said. “We were so happy to have the opportunity for GEAR UP to come in and help our students see possibilities that they may not have been exposed to.”

GEAR UP is designed to help prepare students in low-income communities for success in postsecondary education. GEAR UP serves cohorts of students enrolled in low-income schools – as identified by free and reduced-price meals rates – by offering academic, social and planning support as they progress from the middle grades through graduation and into the first year of college.

This is the fourth GEAR UP award given to the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE), which administers the program in Kentucky. The grant will serve cohorts of 7th-grade students in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years and will serve high school seniors every year through 2025.

“GEAR UP Kentucky is a game-changing program that will accelerate CPE priorities to close achievement gaps, streamline pathways to and through college and build awareness that higher education is the key to personal opportunity – that higher education matters,” CPE President Aaron Thompson said.

Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, tells students at the GEAR UP Kentucky kickoff celebration that the program will help them understand how to take a successful route to postsecondary education. Photo by Mike Marsee, Sept. 25, 2019
Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, tells students at the GEAR UP Kentucky kickoff celebration that the program will help them understand how to take a successful route to postsecondary education.
Photo by Mike Marsee, Sept. 25, 2019

More than 12,000 students in Bath County, Bourbon County, Bracken County, Covington Independent, Fleming County, Frankfort Independent, Marion County, Mason County, Mercer County, Paris Independent, Pendleton County and Robertson County schools will be served by GEAR UP Kentucky.

Kentucky is one of only six states to receive GEAR UP funding from USED in the 2018 grant competition, which will serve students and their families through the 2024-2025 school year by helping students achieve at or above grade-level standards, understand the college admissions and finance process and graduate from high school prepared for college coursework.

Matching funds provided through local, state and national partnerships will bring the total funding available in this grant cycle to $49 million.

Nationally, GEAR UP students apply to and enroll in postsecondary education at a higher rate than their peers. Kim Drummond, executive director of GEAR UP Kentucky, said results in Kentucky follow that trend.

Drummond said that during the second grant cycle, there was an increase of 22 percentage points in college-going rates at participating schools from 2005 to 2011. She said students who were served by the most recent grant exceeded state averages in graduation rate and in completions of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and outperformed low-income students across the state in college readiness assessments.

“We have definitely seen some very real results,” Drummond said.

Thompson, who serves as chairman of the national board that oversees GEAR UP, said the program’s results impact a population of students who historically have faced the most obstacles to college preparation and participation.

“We’ve taken that population group and outperformed cohorts that don’t fit in those categories,” he said. “So many people in the 7th grade don’t think they can go to college or don’t even know what college is. This is not just exposing them to college, it’s helping them to understand there is college. That may be a four-year degree, it may be a two-year degree, it may be a technical certificate. It helps them to understand what fits who they are.”

Meadows said his 7th-grade students at Paris Independent are excited to begin that journey.

“They’re looking for pathways, they’re coming to our mentor sessions and talking with us one-on-one about how they’re going to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves,” he said.

“I like the level of ambition that they’re bringing to the classroom. They have this goal-driven mindset. Also, I like to see the curiosity. That’s high-level learning, high-level cognitive thinking, kids asking questions like, ‘How do I become an engineer?’ ‘What type of work do I need to be focused on?’ ‘What studies are going to help me become an engineer?’”

Drummond noted that GEAR UP Kentucky takes a different approach to attacking the achievement gap.

“When we talk about achievement gaps we really take an asset-based strength approach. We look at these students and look at the things that they’ve overcome and challenge them to use that as strengths instead of barriers,” she said. “We are addressing the achievement gap, but we are much more addressing the opportunity gap.”

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