Eighth-grader Zamarian Bryant, 13, arrived at the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus one morning last May with 95 fellow students from Greensboro Middle School in Hale County.

That day, he and the other students visited the freshman dorms, attended a workshop on money management in the Collat School of Business, and met instructors from the schools of Dentistry, Public Health and Medicine. They also learned how to perform CPR. Using plastic mannequins, an instructor from the UAB School of Health Professions taught the students how to apply chest compressions to the beat of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” – about 100 to 120 compressions per minute. Bryant says it was his favorite activity of the day.

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“It showed me that while we were there to learn,” says Bryant, “we could have fun, too. We also learned about the heart and how blood pumps through our bodies.”

Bryant and his classmates are participants in Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) Alabama, a federally funded program that is targeting 9,300 middle school students from economically depressed communities across the state’s Black Belt. GEAR UP Alabama’s aim is to help students increase their academic performance and prepare them for post-secondary education and careers.

The UAB School of Education is implementing GEAR UP Alabama with help from a U.S. Department of Education grant worth $24.5 million and another $24.5 million in matching funds. The grant supports partnerships between UAB, nonprofit organizations, the business community, and school districts in 17 counties across central Alabama.

Changing School Culture

Since winning a federal GEAR UP grant in 2014, UAB has organized a range of services for the students that include intensive academic tutoring and mentoring. Those services will continue through the students’ first year in college.

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For example, the students at Bellingrath Middle School in Montgomery took part in a GEAR UP Alabama-sponsored Goal Setting Conference in which each child created their own plan of action to raise their grades. In Pike County, eighth graders worked with tutors to prepare for the ACT Aspire assessment tests.

GEAR UP Alabama is also providing professional development for teachers and school leaders through its partnership with the nonprofit Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). Representatives with SREB have led workshops and mentored educators in Pickens and Greene counties and in other school districts on ways to increase academic rigor in the classroom.

“School teams are using data reports provided by SREB and GEAR UP Alabama to make decisions and to request professional development and coaching,” says GEAR UP Alabama Project Director Veronique Zimmerman-Brown, Ph.D. “The teachers are also volunteering to participate in teacher leader programs sponsored by GEAR UP Alabama.” 

Another GEAR UP Alabama partner is Kaplan K-12 Learning Services. The company is distributing supplemental textbooks to the schools to enhance students’ math and science skills and literacy. Furthermore, the UAB School of Education recently announced plans to expand its Red Mountain Writing Project (RMWP) professional development program so teachers in the GEAR UP Alabama cohort can participate in RMWP workshops.

“The workshops offered by GEAR UP Alabama have been integral in developing and enhancing our instructional skills and improving the quality of education for our students, which in turn, prepares them for college and careers,” says Melodie Pettway, a seventh grade English and language arts teacher at Tipton Durant Middle School in Selma.

Sowing Seeds of Opportunity

To make sure students continue learning through the summer, this year GEAR UP Alabama arranged for 1,500 students to attend summer enrichment camps at various colleges and universities, including a four-day Money Math Camp at the UAB Collat School of Business.

In addition, GEAR UP Alabama has helped schools to plan career fairs and job shadowing opportunities as well as college campus tours so their students can explore various careers and set goals.

“I think one of the biggest benefits of the campus tours is that students can see college students who look like them and who come from the same types of families and environments they come from,” says UAB Associate Professor of Counselor Education Larry Tyson, Ph.D., the principal investigator for the GEAR UP Alabama grant.

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Tyson says the program also offers financial wellness workshops for the parents and guardians of students in the GEAR UP Alabama cohort. Representatives from Regions Bank, Alabama Health Action Coalition, and local colleges have led classes on how to save money, prepare nutritious meals, and fill out federal student financial aid applications.

Moreover, the Alabama Community College system has promised tuition waivers for GEAR UP Alabama students who quality for college as well as for parents and guardians who want to return to school and earn their degrees. So far, more than 30 parents and guardians have enrolled in community colleges, organizers say.

“I’ve really been excited over the parents’ reaction to what’s being offered to them,” says Joyce Bryant, the media specialist and GEAR UP Alabama team leader for Aliceville Middle School in Aliceville. “They’ve really made us proud by showing up for the meetings and taking advantage of the different training opportunities and scholarships.”

Tyson says he is pleased with the communities’ support for GEAR UP Alabama and the compliments from school superintendents who say the program is working.

“I’m most proud of the way GEAR UP Alabama students have accepted the challenge of being responsible for their own learning and their academic futures,” says Tyson. “Our students are realizing that if they work hard, there’s a future for them.”