Rural communities around the state get focused on college thanks to Arizona GEAR UP
Phoenix, AZ | Submitted by Teena Olszewski
On average in Arizona, only about half of high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education in the semester after graduation. In rural communities, that figure can drop dramatically, where youth are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have college on their radar.
That’s where Arizona GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) comes in. A movement spearheaded by Northern Arizona University, GEAR UP deploys coordinators to schools spread across 15 rural communities. Their efforts are playing a leading role in the Arizona Education Progress Meter goal to boost postsecondary enrollment to 70 percent by the year 2030.
These coordinators develop relationships with students beginning in middle school and stay with the same cohort through high school, to ensure that they’re motivated and have the resources necessary to pursue higher education. Here are a few examples of their work and success with the most recent cohort of students:
Bradshaw Mountain High in Prescott Valley: Many students at Bradshaw Mountain High are faced with the choice between helping to support their families, or staying focused on their education after graduation. But knowing that 70 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education within the next few years, GEAR UP worked with students and families to forge a path to continued learning.
To help accomplish their mission, GEAR UP identified local businesses, churches and nonprofit organizations that could lend their support for everything from scholarships to mentors. Of course, they also used one-on-one meetings with students, college visits, summer enrichment activities, and much more to ensure success was within reach for each student. The team even made laptops available so that students could complete homework and postsecondary research in their homes.
As a result of years’ worth of efforts, a third of this year’s graduates earned enough college credits to account for their first semester of college. The team was able to increase the number of students who completed the FAFSA by 53% over last year, and this year’s class earned $5.4 million in scholarships. At the end of the year, 83 percent of the graduating class had been accepted into a postsecondary institution, which is far higher than the state average.
Holbrook High in Holbrook: The GEAR UP team in Holbrook had the unique opportunity to work with a cohort comprised of 70 percent Native American students, some of whom lived in school dorms, but many of whom faced an hour-long bus ride to get to school.
Many of these students had little or no understanding of why postsecondary learning is important or how to get there. The GEAR UP team submerged them into the college culture and provided consistent support and encouragement for continuing the learning process beyond high school.
Beyond the traditional GEAR UP activities, the team also led ASK (Academic, Skills, Knowledge) classes throughout the day. The classes aided all students, but were especially targeted to at-risk youth who needed extra support.
This year’s graduating class was positively impacted in a big way. They earned more than double the amount of scholarships as the previous class and the overall graduation rate is higher than previous years, up from 79% in 2017 to 92% in 2018.
Kingman High in Kingman: With a cohort of youth that would largely be first generation college students, GEAR UP at Kingman High was working in a high poverty area that was once labeled the “Least Educated City.” While things have improved since then, the GEAR UP team knew there was still a lot of room to grow.
GEAR UP needed to expose students and their families to postsecondary education and its benefits. The team aided students in navigating the application and financial aid processes, which can be daunting for families that have no experience with higher education. By orchestrating college visits and integrating college-related topics into everyday curriculum, the team was able to increase the number of students who completed the FAFSA by 21% over the previous year, and the graduation rate by 10% over last year.
And their efforts will have a lasting impact – GEAR UP has allowed for increased teacher professional development and new technologies in the school, not to mention the methods and culture that GEAR UP introduced.
Lee Williams High in Kingman: The team in Kingman was able to inspire one of the highest rates of parent/family engagement of any GEAR UP site, which was geared toward helping families understand why postsecondary learning is important and how they can play a role. Students visited nearly a dozen colleges and universities, including some in Phoenix, Nevada and northern Arizona. The visits inspired students to picture themselves attending classes on campus and earning a degree.
But before they even got to college, students went on job tours to explore career options. The increased focus on academics and future learning led to this graduating class having a higher average GPA than previous classes, as well as a higher graduation rate – 94% compared to 76% last year. Perhaps most impressively, the approximately 250 students in the program earned $4.3 million in scholarships this year alone.
Mohave High in Bullhead City: Over the past six years, GEAR UP has helped students in this tri-state community to dream big. Youth in this rural, low-income area traditionally have not pursued higher education, but thanks to the efforts of GEAR UP, that’s all changing.
In order to help students understand the options available – and how to get there – GEAR UP made it possible for students to attend college tours, work on applications together and interact with college recruiters. The program helped students gain the confidence to dream and be successful.
And the level of trust built between staff and students has allowed for many youth to be assisted through challenging life events, including homelessness, depression and loss of loved ones.
Their successes will be carried into future years, but this year’s graduating class has seen great results. So far, graduates have earned more than $10 million in scholarships. Twenty-eight percent more students completed the FAFSA and nearly all who did qualified for the full Pell Grant of nearly $6,000. The graduation rate increased from 88% for the Class of 2017 to 96% for the GEAR UP Class of 2018.
Vista Grande High School in Casa Grande: In a community where many students would be first generation high school graduates, getting students to postsecondary learning is an uphill climb.
The GEAR UP team met with students regularly to plan for postsecondary learning and discuss financial aid options. College visits – and outings to local businesses – also helped, especially in light of the fact that Central Arizona College offers two free years of college to students who can maintain a 2.75 GPA and complete 20 hours of community service during their high school years.
And their efforts are paying off – literally. FAFSA completions were up 35 percent over the previous year and this year’s graduating class earned $6.1 million in scholarships, which is double over the previous year. The graduation rate was also up by 12% over last year.