UAB leads statewide GEAR UP program to give low-income students a path to college

The $49 million grant will enhance services for students, parents and teachers in Alabama’s high-poverty Black Belt.

GUeducation2The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education has been awarded a seven-year, $49 million grant to increase the number of low-income students prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant program provides funding to states to enhance services for students, parents and teachers at high-poverty middle and high schools.

UAB will be the hub of GEAR UP Alabama, which will impact about 10,448 students from 18 school districts and 53 schools in Alabama’s Black Belt.

“Education is the basis for future growth of Alabama’s economy,” said Gov. Robert Bentley. “This grant will help build a solid foundation for our children and will set them up to succeed, by being better prepared for post-secondary education and to join the workforce. The program that this grant funds will be welcome support in our state’s Black Belt region, with some of our most at-need students who attend high-poverty schools. Over the life of this program, we hope to see more of these students being successful in school and in life.”

This is the first time Alabama has been awarded funds from GEAR UP, which began in 1998. UAB’s annual federal award of $3.5 million will be matched by state and project partners, including the Alabama State Department of Education, Alabama State University, Auburn University, the Black Belt Community Foundation, Regions Bank, the University of Alabama and the University of Montevallo. Partners outside Alabama include Allied Practice and Kaplan K12 Learning Services. Key letters of support came from Gov. Robert Bentley and Tommy Bice, Ph.D., state superintendent of education.

“Alabama’s educators work hard each day to prepare students for lifelong success,” Bice said. “The focus is to ensure that our students are both college- and career-ready, and fully engaged in the learning process. GEAR UP provides us with another outstanding resource to help achieve these goals. We are proud to be a part of this new statewide partnership to further student academic achievement.”

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GEAR UP’s goals are to increase the academic performance and preparation for postsecondary education, improve high school graduation and college enrollment rates, increase participating student and family knowledge of postsecondary educational options and financing, and increase program teacher preparation to serve GEAR UP students.

The program will begin this fall with a cohort of students in either sixth or seventh grade and follow them through their first year of college. Fifty percent of the grant will fund scholarships for all GEAR UP program students. The remainder will establish or improve programs that will systematically enhance the region’s educational infrastructure to encourage and support students, parents and teachers in students’ pursuit of postsecondary education.

The poverty rate for children in the Black Belt region is 143 percent higher than the Alabama average and 192 percent higher than the U.S. average. Eighty-four percent of students in the participating schools qualify to receive free or reduced-price lunch, and only 46 percent of those who graduate attend college directly after their senior year.

“GEAR UP Alabama provides an opportunity to make a significant impact on the students and families of over 10,000 sixth- and seventh-grade students in the Black Belt region of Alabama,” said Lawrence Tyson, Ph.D., associate professor of counselor education in the Department of Human Studies and principal investigator for the program.

“This impact can result in more students’ receiving the support they need to become better prepared for college and for achieving success once they are admitted into college. This is an effort that could not happen without the many community partners and school superintendents from throughout the Black Belt region who are committed to improving the future for at-risk students.”

Royrickers Cook, Ph.D., assistant vice president for outreach at Auburn University, Tamara Lee of Alabama State University, Joyce Stallworth, Ph.D., associate provost of the University of Alabama, and Felecia Jones, executive director of the Black Belt Community Foundation, will serve as the program’s co-investigators.

The program will help students be ready for college academically and financially by offering tutoring, academic advising and college entrance exam preparation, as well as workshops for parents. Summer programs and college visits will expose students to campus life and guide them as they transition between middle school, high school and college.

GEAR UP will give teachers professional development opportunities that will allow them to develop rigorous academic curricula and introduce students to college-level coursework. The improved curricula are expected to benefit the students in grade levels adjoining the GEAR UP cohort and have a lasting impact on the quality of instruction at participating schools.

Once cohort students enroll in college, GEAR UP-trained advisers will help them meet academic requirements.

“UAB is proud to lead this tremendous effort to increase college-readiness in Alabama,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “GEAR UP Alabama will have a lasting impact on the state by laying a pathway to postsecondary education for low-income students. The program will also continue to improve the quality of instruction in Alabama, a goal to which the School of Education is extremely dedicated. We look forward to cultivating our partnerships across the state and continuing our commitment to making world-class knowledge available to all.”

The grant is the largest ever awarded to the UAB School of Education. The school offers nationally accredited programs in counselor education, educator preparation, health education, kinesiology, teacher leadership and educational leadership.

“We are very excited about GEAR UP Alabama,” said School of Education Dean Deborah L. Voltz, Ph.D. “It will provide us the opportunity to work with our district and state partners in delivering innovative supports that will promote high school graduation and college success for over 10,000 students across the Black Belt region of the state. GEAR UP Alabama will make an important difference in many young lives.”

The community partnerships forged through GEAR UP Alabama will remain in place after the program ends.