August 6, 2008

GEAR UP Guides Low-Income Students to College

By William Roller, The Sun, Yuma, Ariz.

Aug. 6--Navigating a smooth course through high school and higher education can be a daunting task for even the highly motivated, but calming the turbulence of career choices for Yuma students is made easier due to a federal program.

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is intended to boost the number of low-income students (schools with more than 50 percent receiving free or reduced lunch) to succeed in post-secondary education.

GEAR UP provides college scholarships funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education and matched dollar for dollar by individuals in the professions and local school districts with either time or money. The program advocates for a higher level of achievement, said Alvina Johnson, Yuma's GEAR UP coordinator.

The mission of GEAR UP is to ensure students graduate high school on time, reduce the rate of dropouts and increase the entrance of students into a two- or four-year college, Johnson stressed.

"We believe many of those who dropped out, enrolled unable to handle college level work or had to take remedial courses and became discouraged," Johnson said.

But GEAR UP, working in partnership with Yuma Union High School District and Northern Arizona University-Phoenix, helps Johnson to provide periodic tours of colleges around the state so students get to learn how important higher education is.

Johnson said she also arranges for tutoring if needed and lines up students with a career mentor. If a student expresses an interest in finance, culinary or performance arts, or other aspirations, Johnson sets up a professional in a specific field who can shepherd that student toward their goal.

One of those students who is goal oriented is Laura Moedano, 16, a junior at Cibola High School. Laura said GEAR UP tours of Arizona State University and University of Arizona helped her learn about not only the rigors of their curriculum but how well-rounded students can become by participating in one of many school organizations.

One of the most beneficial aspects of GEAR UP was the Youth Leadership Summit it sponsored in Washington, D.C., July 19-23.

Laura was one of 30 students selected among 112 applicants for the summit. They were divided into three groups of 10 to focus on one topic to resolve such as stereotypes, student attitudes and school environment.

The latter was Laura's issue. She and her fellow students made recommendations to initiate student cooperation with teachers to facilitate lessons and having teachers going the extra mile to provide after-school tutoring. A 50-page paper was prepared along with a presentation detailing their suggestions for an audience of 3,000 education professionals from across the U.S.

"The summit helped me assert myself and made me more determined," Laura said.

Laura said another major influence on her is an older sister, who recently graduated from Princeton University. Although she has not decided yet on a career choice or school, Laura is leaning toward majoring in public policy.

"I like it because it's pretty broad and there's so many choices."

And, she added, the program helped her buckle down and that effort has paid in dividends when she learned she completed each of her first two years at Cibola at the top of her class.

Statistics examining the program's effectiveness show the drop-out rate for the 2006 GEAR UP class (latest available) was 2.6 percent compared with 4.9 percent statewide. The graduation rate was 84 percent compared with 75 percent statewide. And the college entrance rate was 84 percent compared with 31 percent for the state. Also that year, 76 GEAR UP students at Yuma High School were awarded four-year scholarships, Johnson noted.

"Families are sometimes afraid of the educational system, especially when there's a language barrier, but GEAR UP is about involving entire families in the education process," she said.


William Roller can be reached at [email protected] or 539-6858.


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