How GEAR UP is creating a college-going culture in rural San Luis

San Luis, AZ | Submitted by Carmen Castaneda

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In a rural, Title 1 high school with more than 3,000 students, the team from Arizona GEAR UP is helping to prepare students for 21st-century jobs. It’s a border community, which can present challenges if using traditional efforts to ensure that students are prepared and confident about continuing the learning process after completing high school.

Thanks to a federal grant, GEAR UP is operating in 15 rural Arizona communities to create a college-going culture and guide students on the path to higher education. But in San Luis, GEAR UP is unique. In fact, with more than 600 students, it’s the largest GEAR UP cohort this year. But perhaps even more significant, San Luis students didn’t have access to the GEAR UP program until their freshman year, while those in other communities began in seventh grade. And yet, those in San Luis are making impressive strides.

County-wide, students in Yuma are already outpacing the state average for high school graduates who enroll in postsecondary education the year after high school. Though there remains a long way to go. The Arizona Education Progress Meter goal of driving this up to 70 percent by the year 2030 will be a statewide effort with Yuma County already on track to do so.

Many students have never left their community of San Luis. But thanks to GEAR UP, many have visited all three state universities, plus other private institutions such as Grand Canyon University. Locally, they’ve visited Arizona Western College, which provides many with a local avenue to furthering their education. But it’s not enough to show them what to expect on a college campus. The team needed to show them how to get there.

Working with students on an individual basis, the GEAR UP team helps to identify roadblocks to college, along with potential solutions. They have stayed with the same students since their freshman year to help with everything from obtaining financial aid to coping with the idea of moving away from home. Many of the students would be first generation college-goers, so they don’t readily know where to start to tackle the complexities of admissions and financial aid.

To impact the school as a whole and encourage youth of all ages to attend postsecondary education, the school introduced a college t-shirt day, where students and staff can tout their favorite institutions. They’ve also hosted contests where classes decorated doors in college gear. Paired with more direct approaches, such as Saturday ACT practice sessions and personal guidance, GEAR UP is having a big local influence.

And their efforts are paying off. This year alone, they’ve increased FAFSA completions by 67 percent. Students who had previously never considered college are now planning on it. Best of all? Their impact isn’t just being felt by the GEAR UP cohort – younger students are expressing an interest in what is happening and how to further their education beyond a high school diploma.

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