It’s been six years in the making, and GEAR UP is gearing up for a celebration.

GEAR UP, short for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is about to see its first cohort of students graduate from high school.

“It’s extremely exciting to have our first cohort graduating,” said Teena Olszewski, GEAR UP project director. “Our projections say that 75 percent will go on to universities or community colleges.”

GEAR UP is a federally funded dropout prevention and college-access program for students at economically disadvantaged schools. Directed by Northern Arizona University’s College of Education, it’s a statewide partnership among higher education institutions and school districts. “GEAR UP is a comprehensive approach to supporting student success,” said Daniel Kain, dean of NAU’s College of Education, “and it demonstrates that we can make a powerful difference in young people’s lives.”

More than 2,600 students will graduate this year from high schools in Flagstaff, Kingman, Mesa, Phoenix, Tucson, Patagonia, Nogales, Pinon, and Yuma. Sixty-five percent of GEAR UP students are minority, predominantly Latino and Native American and 84 percent are first-generation college prospects.

The graduation rate of GEAR UP students is expected to exceed the state average by 20 percent and more than twice as many GEAR UP students plan to attend college after graduating, than the current college-enrollment rate for the state, according to a recent program review by WestEd, an educational research organization. In addition, about 500 GEAR UP students have received scholarship awards totaling almost $9 million in the past month.

GEAR UP strategies include mentoring, tutoring, academic enrichment through summer programs and Saturday school, AIMS preparation workshops, transition programs, grades and attendance monitoring and intervention. Also included are community-service learning projects, job shadowing, career fairs, college visits, parent workshops, and personal and academic counseling.

“We go by the research that’s already out there to show what helps students succeed,” Olszewski said, explaining: start early, have high expectations, involve parents and meet students’ social, academic and environmental needs.

Student and parent focus groups have demonstrated that GEAR UP’s methods appear to be working. “Without GEAR UP I would have dropped out of school,” one student wrote. “I didn’t really care about anything. I was really mouthy to teachers, and now I am cool with them. Now my grades are excellent but back then they were bad. … Now I am a determined student.”

A parent added, “These kids are so much more focused and it’s due to this program. It’s helped me personally learn more about what he needs to do, where he needs to be, and without this I don’t know where I would be. I mean I didn’t go to college so I have no idea.”

GEAR UP recently received two additional grants to supplement its work.

The Arizona Community Foundation has granted nearly $180,000 for GEAR UP to purchase laptop computers for 125 college-bound seniors, selected on the basis of their high potential for continued academic success and their plan to enter a college or university in the fall.

The second grant is more than $22,000 from the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships in association with AT&T.

The grant will allow 30 students from the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind to attend NAU’s Summer Enrichment Program in June. The one-week residential program on the Flagstaff campus enhances student commitment to attending a university and improves their problem solving and communication skills.

NAU’s GEAR UP program is part of a national initiative that began in 1999 and now is in 47 states. In September 2000, the U.S. Department of Education awarded NAU’s College of Education multiyear grants to work with single cohorts of students, Olszewski explained.

Annual evaluations of GEAR UP have shown that its students are more likely to stay in school, be promoted to the next grade level, meet or exceed AIMS middle school standards, score better on the Stanford 9, and receive mentor support. In addition, the evaluations show that GEAR UP has increased the availability of academic support services at each participating school.

The overall results will be evaluated and Olszewski hopes another grant will be awarded in August.

“We’re hoping for additional funding,” she said. “There is a lot of need in Arizona. A lot of people are interested in the middle years, which is really grades 7 to 12, if you think of our educational system as preschool through post-graduate.”

For information on GEAR UP, click here or e-mail Teena.Olszewski@nau.edu.