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Fattah’s Student Aid Plan to Grow

July 22, 2008

By Dan Hardy, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Jul. 22–WASHINGTON — A program created by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah to help low-income students get into college will soon be expanded to help students make it through their first year.

Fattah announced the expansion of Gear Up, a federally funded college preparation and scholarship program yesterday at a conference in Washington marking its 10th anniversary.

“One of the big ugly secrets of higher education is that the majority of kids that start don’t get a degree,” said Fattah, a Philadelphia Democrat. “If they [Gear Up students] are stumbling their way through the first year, without academic and other supports, they could have problems.” Gear-Up is a six-year program from seventh through 12th grade. Giving the students a seventh year of support will help boost the numbers who stay in college, he added.

Fattah said the extra year was included in legislation that has passed the committees in both the House and the Senate. Authorization is expected in the fall.

Gear Up, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, takes low-income seventh graders, guides them through their senior year in high school and helps them get into colleges. Students get academic support including summer programs, mentoring and exposure to the college recruitment process. Their schools get training for teachers and help in designing curriculum.

Gear Up also provides college scholarship money — up to $4,700 a year — if students stay in-state.

The program has grown from a $120 million federal allocation in 1999 to $303.4 million this year, with matching funds coming from states, school districts and higher education organizations. About $2.7 billion in federal money has been spent overall.

Across the country, 738,000 students were in Gear Up this year.

Gear Up participants have an average high school graduation rate of about 86 percent compared with 64 percent for all low-income students and a post-secondary education enrollment rate of about 60 percent compared with 53 percent for all low-income students.

Fattah staffer Elizabeth King said there has been no study of college outcomes for Gear Up students, but “research shows that getting them through the first year of college makes them much more likely to come back and finish. This is a way of getting them over the hump — a way of making Gear Up stronger.”

This coming school year about 1,700 Philadelphia students will participate in Gear Up through a six-year, $18 million grant to the state that will also serve students in Harrisburg and Allentown. The grant is one of 24 awarded nationally from 283 applicants. This year, about 6,300 Philadelphia students took part in a program that ran from 2002 through June.

A district program that ran from 1999 through 2005 did not get renewed.

Fattah, the chairman of the Congressional Urban Caucus, yesterday thanked an audience of 1,700 staffers, students and parents at a national Gear Up conference at the Washington Hilton. “All that they [Gear Up students] require is that they be provided an educational opportunity equal to their ability.”

Fattah authored the program in 1998 and won support from President Clinton who said it “creates middle-class expectations for working-class young people.” Gear Up has survived attempts by President Bush to kill it.

Gear Up is based on the “Say Yes to Education” and “Tell Them We Are Rising” programs in Philadelphia, in which philanthropist George Weiss and educator Ruth Wright Hayre worked to guide a whole class of elementary school students toward college with the promise of free tuition and academic help.

“Every kid gets the services. You are not preselecting kids,” said Fattah. “You are saying every student should get a chance.”

Ironically, given Gear Up’s Philadelphia roots, the number of city students it has served has been fairly limited. In 1999, the district got a five-year grant that was later extended another year for a total of $35.3 million. Funding is competitive and the district’s program was not selected for renewal.

A 2006 study by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based education group, said that some academic gains were made by the Philadelphia Gear Up program, but many students remained unprepared for college-level courses and drop-out percentages remained high. The program did succeed, the study said, in greatly increasing students’ awareness of college opportunities and the number of students applying for and being accepted to college rose.

Of the 731 Philadelphia seniors who participated in the state-run Gear Up program that ended this year, 52 percent were accepted to post-secondary schools, said Philadelphia program coordinator Edith Paige. The students were at John Bartram High School’s main campus, Martin Luther King high, E.W. Rhodes High School and Strawberry Mansion High. All except Rhodes are large comprehensive high schools; all have high poverty rates.

Kenyon Whittington, a Gear Up staffer at Rhodes and Strawberry Mansion, said that “the long-term goal was to get them early exposure to college life and to get them into college preparatory courses they would need. But before that, we had to get them in a mind frame of graduating high school first — attending courses, getting acclimated to the high school — and then getting them moving toward college awareness.”

Kiema Norris-Dozier, who graduated from Rhodes in June and is going to Villanova University, credits Gear Up with putting her on the college path.

“I thought I would just graduate high school and get a job; they showed me the opportunities open to me. They talked about the real world, and how a high school diploma is not good enough any more; they exposed me to a lot of things. After a few years, I started thinking ‘I’m going to go to college,’ and here I am.”

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 610-627-2649 or dhardy@phillynews.com.

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