The Seven-Year Switch

A bold education initiative could change the outlook for Alabama's Black Belt
By Gail Allyn Short
Photo of student in front of chalkboard; title: The Seven-Year Switch
A bold education initiative could change the outlook for Alabama's Black Belt
By Gail Allyn Short
As Veronique Zimmerman-Brown, Ph.D., drives through the Black Belt, she can tell easily that jobs have been hard to come by and that the region’s poverty rate stands at close to 30 percent. “You can see historical deficiencies in terms of finance and economics,” says Zimmerman-Brown, a UAB School of Education program director and alumna. “A lot of businesses are boarded up, so you know the money isn’t flowing, and the tax revenue isn’t there.”
Another statistic accompanies those gaps and empty spaces: In the Black Belt—the counties stretching through central Alabama from Mississippi to Georgia—nearly a quarter of adults age 25 and over, on average, have never earned a high school diploma.
Illustration of ladder showing GEAR UP's progression from middle school through college
For Zimmerman-Brown and Lawrence Tyson, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB School of Education Counselor Education Program, that figure presents an opportunity to turn things around—and they’re not starting small. The two are leading the GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) Alabama initiative, which is providing support to 9,300 students, along with their parents and guardians, in 21 Black Belt school districts from seventh and eighth grade through their first year in college.

College-Ready Kids

GEAR UP is a U.S. Department of Education program awarding multiyear grants that encourage schools, communities, and states to coordinate services to increase the numbers of low-income students enrolling and succeeding in higher education. The UAB School of Education won a GEAR UP grant in 2014 that includes $24.5 million plus another $24.5 million in matching funds from Alabama colleges, community foundations, corporate partners, government agencies, and participating school systems.
GEAR UP Alabama (GUA) is providing the seventh and eighth graders with a spectrum of services for up to seven years: an enhanced educational curriculum, tutoring, mentoring, and academic enrichment camps, among other programs. Teachers and school administrators also receive professional development and mentoring. All of it is designed to make youngsters college ready—and to bring about lasting changes in the classroom.
The multiyear, multilayered approach “has the potential to develop sustainability of programs aimed at increasing the teachers’ ability to create and present a rigorous curriculum,” says Tyson, GUA’s principal investigator. Enhancing the level of learning is a major goal. The teacher training, for example, is intended to benefit GUA students along with those who follow them after the program ends.

Listening and Writing

To assess the state of education in the Black Belt, GUA collected baseline data for participating middle schools through a partnership with the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a nonprofit, nonpartisan group seeking to improve public education. Zimmerman-Brown says they interviewed students, teachers, administrators, and others to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each school’s academic program.
“At every point, we try to get input from the superintendent, parents, and teachers,” Zimmerman-Brown says. “We include their comments in our action items to help them to understand that we’re listening.” Initial weaknesses included low percentages of teachers in math, English/language arts, and science with college degrees in those fields; a need for coursework reflecting the increased expectations of higher educational standards; and a lack of accelerated learning to help students graduate on time and score well on assessments for college and career readiness.
As for strengths, the review found that most teachers say they are expected to apply to the classroom what they learn in their training programs—a core component of GUA. Tyson says SREB consultants will be on hand for GUA’s duration, providing ongoing professional development to enhance the curriculum in areas identified by teachers and administrators.
GUA also is collaborating with Kaplan K-12 Learning Services to help schools increase academic rigor in math and science. As part of the effort, Kaplan has supplied two sets of supplemental texts in math and literacy for students and teachers to use.
Tynisa Williams, an eighth-grade math teacher at Montgomery’s Brewbaker Middle School, says the Kaplan books contain information like textbooks but also function as workbooks. “The kids love them,” says Williams. “They like being able to see an example [of a math problem] and work it out right there. They say it’s so much easier when they can write in their books.”

Money Matters

Stronger academics aren’t the only key to college for Black Belt children. GUA is helping students and their parents determine how to pay for college long before senior year. For example, GUA and the Alabama Department of Education are collaborating on workshops to teach parents and guardians how to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms needed to obtain federal money for college.
Pullquote: GEAR UP Alabama provides seventh and eighth graders with a spectrum of services for up to seven years: an enhanced educational curriculum, tutoring, mentoring, and academic enrichment camps, among other programs.
“Starting early is paramount because there’s not a history of students being directly engaged in completing that application,” Tyson says. “We want to increase the number of students completing FAFSA every year so that when they get to be juniors and seniors, they’ll be aware that it’s something they’re supposed to do.” Introducing families to FAFSA now also could encourage applications from the students’ older siblings.
GUA’s efforts in this area got a boost recently when Alabama’s community college system pledged tuition waivers for GUA students who qualify for admission. Tyson says GUA has been in talks with Alabama’s four-year colleges and universities about securing similar tuition waivers.
Moreover, the community college system also has pledged tuition waivers for GUA parents who want to return to school to earn degrees. At GUA’s Parents’ Scholar Night events in different counties, parents can learn more about the waivers, GED preparation, and other details needed for enrollment.
The business community is on board as well. Regions Bank, for instance, has teamed up with Stephanie Yates, Ph.D., the Regions Institute for Financial Education Endowed Professor in the UAB Collat School of Business, to teach financial literacy seminars for GUA parents and guardians.
All of these partnerships are crucial for GUA’s success—and the Black Belt’s future—Tyson says. “High schools whose graduates go on to a post-high school education, whether that is in the military or a career or college, produce individuals who will come back into the community and make it stronger,” says Tyson. “So community partnerships with education are a must. They cannot be separate.”

Healthy Body, Healthy Future

It’s no surprise that students perform better academically when they feel good. So GUA is working with organizations such as the Alabama Health Action Coalition to lead family health and nutrition seminars, complete with tips on preparing wholesome meals. “We see cases of children with diabetes and obesity, and if they’re sluggish, then they’re not alert and not learning,” Zimmerman-Brown says. The health focus also benefits parents and guardians, helping them to “be present for their children,” she adds.

Eager to Learn

Many GUA students have already glimpsed the potential future that awaits them. Regions and other businesses have held job-shadowing events, letting students visit their workplaces and learn about different careers. And this summer, more than 1,500 students attended academic enrichment campus at colleges around the region. At UAB, a hundred of those children participated in a financial literacy camp led by Yates.
Some GUA middle-schoolers have previewed college life through campus tours. Last January, a group from Brewbaker Middle visited Tuskegee University, and they came home excited, Williams says.
“Now the kids are talking about college and what they want to do when they grow up,” she says. Even some students who didn’t care about finishing school are saying they want to go to college, she adds. “To make that change in a child’s life is extraordinary.”

Published October 2016