Students Getting a Leg Up on College Thanks to Arizona GEAR UP

Phoenix, AZ | Submitted by Teena Olszewski

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Every child deserves a chance to pursue higher education. But getting to college is complicated and waiting until their senior year of high school to prepare them is too late – as the team at Arizona GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) knows.

A project of Northern Arizona University, Arizona GEAR UP connects with seventh graders in high-needs school districts and stays with them for the next six years to help the youth stay on-track academically on the path to college and career. Their efforts are funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant aimed at boosting enrollment and attainment rates for disadvantaged students who otherwise would not have the support needed to make it to education beyond high school.

Using a team of 19 coordinators – many of whom are former educators – who manage the delivery of services, GEAR UP develops relationships of trust and respect with students and their families. They also work with leadership at their partner school districts to develop an action plan and implement research-based practices that will best aid their student body. The goal? Significantly increase the number of students who are prepared to continue on to postsecondary education or training.

In the most recent cohort, students in 36 schools spread across 15 communities are part of the program. That means that nearly 4,000 students are benefiting from college visits, career interest exploration, summer enrichment programs, parent engagement efforts, academic interventions, financial aid application assistance and school transition preparation. The career exploration is especially important, since many students don’t know what their future could include. It’s an eye-opening venture, and one that can amp up their motivation to work hard. What’s more, one of the biggest benefits of Arizona GEAR UP is the presence of a caring adult who is more engaged and ever-present than many have ever experienced. Northern Arizona University even makes it possible for 250 of the these students to attend a summer program on campus, allowing them a glimpse of college life and helping youth to visualize themselves pursuing a college degree.

These students hail from rural portions of the state, which are often economically challenged and lacking in the resources more readily found in urban areas. Areas including Winslow, San Luis, Bullhead City and Casa Grande are reaping the benefits of Arizona GEAR UP’s work.

Because Arizona GEAR UP engages with the students, caregivers and teachers from an entire grade, it’s a natural vehicle for systemic change. And that’s exactly what is needed, since nearly 70 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education by the year 2020 and only 42 percent of Arizonans have completed a degree.4

The results speak for themselves. Arizona GEAR UP’s first group of students graduated in 2006. That year, the statewide high school graduation rate was 69 percent. For GEAR UP students, it was 82 percent. The state’s college-going rate was 45 percent. GEAR UP’s was a whopping 75 percent. And this included schools along the state’s border, on reservations, and the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, a segment often overlooked for postsecondary achievement.

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