Since 2006, GEAR UP has:
- Reduced dropout rate from 30 percent to 19 percent
- Increased high school graduation rate from 58 percent to 70 percent
- Increased college enrollment rate from 21 percent to 39 percent
Objectives for latest seven-year grant:
- Reduce dropout rate to 10 percent
- Increase high school graduation rate to 85 percent
- Increase college enrollment to 64 percent
Saasha Jones was a sophomore at Brainerd High School when she attended a graduation ceremony at UTC.
She was invited by a friend who was part of the university’s GEAR UP program, which helps middle through high schoolers get ready for college—or even get them interested in going if they haven’t been before. Her friend’s husband was graduating and they had made “Congratulations” signs to hold up as he walked across stage to accept his diploma. Loud cheers were also part of the plans.
“I vividly remember that moment,” Jones says. “It made not just going to college realistic, seeing him graduate made graduating from college realistic. I had many students from my neighborhood go to college but so few graduated.
“Without GEAR UP, I’m not sure that I could have,” says Jones, who has earned bachelor’s and a master’s in business administration from UTC and is now a disability benefit specialist at Unum.
An initiative from the U.S. Department of Education, GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.
“We’re all about not just college readiness but also college success,” says Hunter Huckabay, director of GEAR UP since its inception at UTC in 1999. “Our little motto is: Helping kids get to, pay for and succeed in college.
“What we think of it is: Helping our kids develop more options,” Huckabay says. “A lot of times they’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I want to go to college,’ and I say, ‘Well, I don’t either, but that’s your decision. But I do know that you want to be the one who decides and you don’t want someone else to decide for you whether can.’”
UTC’s GEAR UP, which is part of the College of Health, Education & Professional Studies, recently received a $5.1 million grant from the Department of Education, the largest amount the program has ever been given.
Over the next seven years, the money will pay for such GEAR UP offerings as afterschool educational programs, summer camps, one-on-one tutoring, paying for teaching assistants in math and English classes and school counselor offices and providing professional development workshops for teachers and administrators. The program reaches out to each school to get a sense of what it needs for its students as well as listen to ideas from faculty and staff at the schools.
The married couple at the UTC graduation were afterschool and summer camp counselors in GEAR UP while students at the university. As a UTC student, Jones also worked as a GEAR UP volunteer.
Elaine Swafford, executive director at CGLA, has worked with GEAR UP since 2004 when she was principal at the Howard School. Program officials are true partners, she says, and don’t try to dictate what steps need to be taken at each school.
“They don’t come in and try to apply on you what they need for their program,” Swafford says. “They ask, ‘What do you need to get from us to get your school to move forward?’
“You get a lot of bang for your buck.”
GEAR UP starts by attaching itself to a sixth- and seventh-grade classes at each school. From then until the students graduate from high school, GEAR UP follows their progress academically. One of the main goals is to get the students up to grade-level in math and reading.
“Those are the foundational skills for all the academic areas,” Huckabay says. “The reason that we get the grant and they connect us to the schools is that the students at those schools are behind; they’re not at grade level.”
The schools involved in the newest group are Orchard Knob and Dalewood middle schools, Howard and Brainerd high schools, East Lake Academy and Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, a total of about 1,200 students. All are in the Hamilton County School System’s Opportunity Zone.
“The ranks of the Opportunity Zone’s leadership team are replete with principals, counselors, teachers and curriculum coaches who have a long history of utilizing GEAR UP resources,” Huckabay says. “The Opportunity Zone has created a huge springboard for GEAR UP in this cycle.”
In some of these high schools, eight out of 10 ninth-graders fail to enroll in college on time.
“In other words,” Huckabay says. “without the kind of help we can bring them, 80 percent of these students will miss one of the great experiences of this world—college—and fall out of the political, economic and social mainstream.”
Jones first came in contact with GEAR UP when she was a student at Orchard Knob Middle School and continued until she graduated from Brainerd High in 2007. After graduating, she stayed with GEAR UP as a volunteer, working as an afterschool and summer camp counselor and as a school tutor, among other jobs.
“I’ve hosted a College Knowledge Bowl, participated on multiple Q&A panels and conducted classes to discuss topics such as campus involvement, college prep, proper attire, etc. I’ve also written recommendation letters for former students,” she says.
Being a mentor and counselor to middle and high school students was just as important as helping them with their studies, she says.
“I was given an opportunity to meet amazing students who are literally where I’m from who just need a helping hand, an encouraging word and a pat on the back when they accomplish what most would say is impossible. It’s not impossible. But it takes a program like GEAR UP to make it so much easier.
“In the midst of all the visible examples of failure we grew up around, GEAR UP fed our flicker of hope,” Jones says. “And can you believe, they were actually right! So many of us are doing amazing things now, no doubt, as a result of that program.”
Not sticking strictly to academics is one of GEAR UP’s critical elements, Swafford echoes
“They help individual children become successful in areas that otherwise, without that extra help, they would not have been able to reach,” she says.
Those areas include social skills and school engagement, Huckabay says, which can be key pieces for improving the students’ academic abilities.
“We try to build that into our programs. We’ll bring in mentors who come in just to work with students on the issues of the day,” he says.
Engaging students in more than just classroom lessons may keep them from dropping out in high school, he adds.
Jones calls GEAR UP “a planet” filled with people who tackled “the overwhelming task” of getting kids to enroll and graduate from college.
“How?” she asks. “The same way you eat an elephant. One bite at a time.”