Northern Arizona University has been awarded a six-year, $17 million grant to continue the state’s GEAR UP program.

GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is a federally funded dropout prevention and college-access program for students at economically disadvantaged schools. Directed by NAU’s College of Education, the program is a statewide partnership among higher education institutions and school districts.

The federal grant has been matched by cash and in-kind contributions from schools and community partners, totaling $34 million for GEAR UP over six years.

“We know that Arizona has talented young people who need additional support and adult mentoring to reach their potential during the trying teen years,” said Gov. Janet Napolitano in announcing the grant. “GEAR UP provides the additional mentorship, support and high expectations that can help this population of first-generation college bound students succeed in school.”

About 130 of GEAR UP’s first cohort of graduates are attending NAU this semester. About 25 were on hand Tuesday for an ice cream social at the Flagstaff campus.

“I lucked out when I was chosen for the GEAR UP program, because without it I wouldn’t have had the money to come to college,” said Alberto Villagran who attended Mesa High School.

“I really benefited from the attention I got in high school from the GEAR UP program. We had scheduled meetings to make sure we were on track for going to college, and they really kept me focused on my goal to get here,” added Leah La Moure, who also attended Mesa High.

Teena Olszewski, state director for the GEAR UP program in Phoenix, said many of the students at Tuesday’s reception began dreaming while they were in middle school of attending NAU. “This welcome from the university is heart-felt by these students,” she said. “They know that with hard work and perseverance dreams can and do come true.”

Arizona’s experience with GEAR UP has been impressive. The previous state grant, also under NAU’s leadership, worked with students from 2000 to 2006, beginning in middle school and continuing through high school graduation. Participants saw a graduation rate of nearly 88 percent compared to the average state rate of 67 percent.

More than 2,600 students graduated from high schools in Flagstaff, Kingman, Casa Grande, Mesa, Phoenix, Tucson, Patagonia, Nogales, Pinon and Yuma. Additionally, about 500 GEAR UP students received $9 million in college scholarships.

Sixty-five percent of GEAR UP students are minority, predominantly Latino and Native American, and 84 percent are first-generation college prospects. The new state grant will build on partnerships with schools in Coolidge, Flagstaff, Miami-Globe, Phoenix and Yuma, as well as a partnership at Arizona State University.

Other key partners in the new program include the Arizona College Scholarship Foundation, the Arizona Department of Education, the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education, The New York Times Knowledge Network and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff.

“GEAR UP demonstrates the power of partnerships for Arizona’s youth,” said Daniel Kain, dean of the NAU College of Education. “It also demonstrates the kind of difference we can make for young people when we provide support and encourage them to succeed.”

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.

“I feel more comfortable (at NAU) because GEAR UP let me know what to expect coming to college,” said Gabriella Yazzie of Pinon High School on the Navajo Nation.

Brooke Begay, also of Pinon High, added, “The program really kept us track and showed us the way around when we got here.”