COTTONWOOD - GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is designed to prepare students to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. Congress authorized it in 1998.
Grants for GEAR UP are administered through Northern Arizona University to selected school districts. Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union High School districts have entered the program with this school year.
The program is not designed for low-income families specifically, but it is targeted to low-income communities. According to the Washington-based Education Trust, "The highest-achieving low income students go to college at about the same rate as the lowest-achieving students from wealthy families."
Gretchen Wesbrock is the GEAR UP coordinator at Cottonwood Middle School. Marisol Burnett is the program assistant. They will follow this class into eighth grade and then to MUHS until the class graduates in 2018.
"The mission of GEAR UP is to get more students to college," Wesbrock said. "The goals are to significantly increase college preparation and attendance by keeping students in school, improving students' academic performance, and increasing knowledge of college options, advantages, access and financing."
She explained that the program starts in the middle school with the entire seventh grade cohort and continues with them through high school.
"I am currently working with the entire seventh grade cohort in the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District, which includes students at Cottonwood Middle School, Mountain View Prep and Oak Creek School."
In Arizona students who have gone through the six-year GEAR UP program graduate high school at a rate of 82 percent, compared with 69 percent statewide. The same GEAR UP students head to college at a ratio of 75 percent to 45 percent for the rest of Arizona.
The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce says that by 2018, 61 percent of all jobs in Arizona will require some training beyond high school.
Those are some of the statistics that drive GEAR UP.
Wesbrock said that MUHS teacher Jennifer Chilton is responsible for bringing GEAR UP to the local districts. In fact, Wesbrock and Burnett are paid by the grant through MUHS.
She explained that as new students join the class in the GEAR UP program, they are part of the cohort, regardless of their grade level.
Wesbrock and Burnett do not meet with the seventh graders as a class.
"I meet with them one on one," Wesbrock said. "Right now we're seeing how their behaviors are opening up, or limiting, their possibilities. It's not too early to start them learning good behaviors."
She said this year with this class will be focused on building individual relationships with the students.
In addition to school-year programs, there will be summer enrichment programs each summer. Those will vary and could include residential programs on college campuses.
"We'll be able to do the enrichment program every summer until they graduate," Wesbrock said. "I'm trying to help them see how important college, or something after high school, will be to them."
She said the goal is not just to get more students into college but also for them to have the skills to be successful in college.
"Family involvement is a huge part of this," Wesbrock said. So far, she says it has "been amazing."
"We're also very much partnered with the teachers," she said. "We're doing professional development for teachers around the Common Core."
Wesbrock said she is working with NAU students who are writing letters to her seventh grade students.
"You can go to college," is the message she is working to get across.
There are currently 10 districts in Arizona in the GEAR UP program for the next six years.