By James El-Mallakh–
If you ask a freshman in high school what year he or she will graduate, one would answer 2016. But according to Kim Millard the answer is 2020, which is the year that student will graduate from college.
“We’re providing services for this first class that we’ve called the class of 2021, which is the year they’re graduating college,” said Kim Millard, the Communications and Outreach Coordinator for the GEAR UP Kentucky program, when referring to a class of eighth grade students.
GEAR UP stands for ‘Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.’ Part of the mission of GEAR UP is to create a “college-going culture” and increase the number of secondary education students that enroll in college. Beyond the re-naming of a group of underclassmen, the GEAR UP program does this in several ways.
Starting at the seventh grade level going all the way to the first year of college, students are prepared for going to college through academic advising, campus tours and finding the scholarship application process. There is also a parental component to the program which seeks to increase parents’ participation in their child’s education.
“I think it helped me tremendously,” said Nandi Thomas, a member of one of the GEAR UP classes and currently a biology major at U of L. Thomas says the GEAR UP office at her high school in Covington, KY was, “a place for me to just go and talk to them if I had problems with grades at school or anything that would hinder my performance.”
Thomas says that she worked consistently with one counselor throughout her time in high school. During a trip to U of L’s campus, Thomas was able to speak to faculty in the biology department and she decided that U of L was the best choice for her, “there’s so much nature here and I was looking for that when picking a school.”
Thomas also notes that the GEAR UP program at her high school was mostly used at the behest of the students rather than of GEAR UP counselors. “[In] our high school, I wouldn’t say a lot of people used it but a good number of my graduating class used it.”
The GEAR UP program measures its success through students’ test scores on tests like the EXPLORE, PLAN, and ACT tests as well as college and high school graduation rates. According to a written statement from Program Coordinator for GEAR UP, Mark Wiljanen, “students at GEAR UP schools were consistently posting greater gains on test scores than the state average – a 31.9 percent improvement in Reading scores, for example, compared with a state average improvement of 23.8 percent in Reading.”
GEAR UP also actively targets families below the poverty line, “in one of the rural [GEAR UP Kentucky II] high schools, 85 percent of the students came from impoverished families,” said Wiljanen in a statement. GEAR UP serves 29 schools across 21 Kentucky counties.
GEAR UP is funded by the US department of education. The department awards competitively earned six-year grants to states to increase college enrollment. Kentucky was recently awarded a third grant which will fund the program for another six years.
Thomas describes that two or three months into her first semester at U of L, “Ms. Lindy, who is our GEAR UP coordinator at our high school, she came down to visit me and four other girls that came down to Louisville as well to check up on us and things like that.”
“That really shows there was a bond and it wasn’t like she helped me because she had to, but it was because she wanted to see me personally succeed in life.”