Going Places

By Stacy Weiner — August 17, 2001 21 min read
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While participating in the national GEAR UP effort, one group in Virginia has hit some bumps along the way.

The patient is on the table, covered by a blue sheet and surrounded by operating room personnel. The nurses have scrubbed up. The surgeons are prepped with masks tied taut, rubber gloves snapped in place, and hair tucked inside caps. The sponges have been counted and counted again to ensure that none is left festering inside the patient. One at a time, a nurse slaps the instruments— a retractor, a clamp, forceps—into the surgeon’s hand so that he doesn’t have to glance away from the patient for even a second. Everything looks good. But then one of the OR staff forgets the proper way to pull off a potentially contaminated, blood-soaked glove, and a nurse calls out: “No! Stop!” But it’s too late.

And it doesn’t matter. The patient’s not alive anyway: She’s just a life-size rubber doll named Annie. There isn’t really any blood, and the surgeons here at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington are a bunch of 12-year- olds who, a couple of minutes ago, were cracking jokes and chewing gum.

Medical Practice: 12-year-olds take a stab at “surgery” as part of exploring Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington this summer.
—David Kidd

It’s mid-June, and yesterday these six kids from local schools were prospective real estate magnates. The day before, they stood on a grassy hill, peering through binoculars at purple martins. Tomorrow, they’ll hear from a Secret Service agent, then spend a couple of hours up close and personal with pink, puffy sheep brains.

Throughout this week, these soon-to-be 7th graders are spending hours writing in their journals about career options—video-game maker, market research analyst, and detective, to name a few. Their counselors, education students at Marymount University, are telling them about college life, everything from dorms to dances to deadlines. And professionals are offering reams of wisdom: “There are so many opportunities to do good things,” “Don’t focus on just one thing,” and, above all, “Do what you really, really like.”

A total of 13 students from two middle schools in Arlington County are taking part in this summer session of the federally funded GEAR UP program, which encourages low-income youngsters to set their sights on, and prepare for, college. The goal, from a broader perspective, is to raise the aspirations and awareness of these students early enough to prevent bad habits and low expectations from shaping the rest of their lives.

For disadvantaged children, the shiny American dream is shrouded in a darker reality—if you’re poor, you’ll likely stay poor, unless you get a college education. In fact, those who don’t have a bachelor’s degree earn $15,000 less per year than their more educated peers, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet here’s the Catch-22: Low-income students are seven times less likely than their better- off counterparts to go to college. So GEAR UP (which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) sets disadvantaged kids on the path to higher education through tutoring, mentoring, campus visits, and, in some cases, days spent studying sheep brains. The program is designed to let young people know that—if they have the desire and are willing to work hard enough—there’s more ahead for them than scraping a greasy grill or punching holes in ears at the local Piercing Pagoda.

As well-intentioned as its proponents are, however, GEAR UP has yet to prove itself on paper. Just two years old, it hasn’t had much time to produce measurable results. What’s more a Clinton-backed initiative, it’s hardly adored by the Bush administration, which has asked Congress to reduce funding for the $295 million program. But some experts argue that, because there are so many disadvantaged middle schoolers, a program like GEAR UP, which offers opportunities these kids wouldn’t otherwise have, is a necessity. And although districts like Arlington have faced difficulties while administering the program, a close look at its beneficiaries suggests that those experts are right.

“A lot of times kids grow up in a family where there are many opportunities. Some kids are born, and their parents feel they have a Yale birthright, or a Harvard birthright,” says Rene Bostick, a reading teacher in one of the Arlington GEAR UP schools. “Then you have the kids who don’t have that, like many of our kids in our school. If children never know that chocolate cake is a possibility, they’re going to choose other things. . . . I look at offering students a buffet of possibilities. I tell them, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ ”

Bostick’s kids are among the 1.2 million mostly middle school students taking part in GEAR UP programs across the country. While other efforts to target at-risk youngsters focus on the high school years, many educators believe that’s just too late to reach some kids. “Middle school is the place where the concrete starts to harden as to where these kids are going to head,” says Chaka Fattah, the Democratic U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania who authored the GEAR UP legislation that was promoted by the Clinton White House and signed into law in 1998.

GEAR UP tutor Tameka Logan says working with at-risk kids is harder than she thought.
—David Kidd

Since its inception in 1999, GEAR UP has reached middle schoolers in more than 300 locations. Although some of the funds are reserved for state-administered versions of the program, most are community- based “partnership” grants that go directly to a school or district. Partnerships vary in design, but they share one trait: They’re expected not only to transform a school, but to influence a wider culture. That’s why grant recipients must provide services to all students in each participating grade (called a “cohort”). They’re also expected to upgrade their curricula and include community members, local businesses, or volunteer groups in the partnerships.

“I don’t buy the idea of going in and saving a couple of kids from this decrepit, run-down school,” says Fattah. “I buy into the notion that all of the kids in that school can learn and that all of them can have aspirations beyond high school.”

Fathieh Shayestehpour aspired to a better life when she left Iran for the United States 24 years ago. Things didn’t work out fabulously well for her, though. She studied to be a secretary, then switched to nursing school, which she never finished. At 52, she’s held various jobs over the years, including a recent stint with the Census Bureau. Her husband, who was injured last year, is between jobs, and she’s worried about their health insurance running out. Still, Shayestehpour loves America—“It’s the best place in the world,” she declares—mostly because of the opportunities it provides her two children.

“GEAR UP gives the kids self-confidence,” which is often undermined, she says, when they come from what she calls “a different kind of family, not from a ‘regular,’ white American family.” Maybe, she adds, “their parents have an accent, their skin looks different, or they dress some way that’s different. GEAR UP helps them feel they can be as good as anyone else. In their minds, it helps to bring us to the same position as other Americans.”

Betty Spencer, assistant principal at Kenmore Middle School, which serves many immigrant students and is one of the two GEAR UP recipients in the Arlington district, says these children face boulder-size obstacles. “First you have to convince them that college is something that they can even think about,” she explains. “Then it’s a challenge for the families who need their children to go to work: They need that income.” They may also depend on their kids to be baby sitters, translators, and guides through the wilds of a foreign culture. And even if these youngsters manage to do the work that can get them into college, their parents sometimes can’t afford the expense.

Through GEAR UP, though, Shayestehpour has been educated about her daughter’s financial aid options. “Sometimes I [worried], What will we do if she finishes high school and we don’t have the money for college? . . . Now I know she will go to college,” she says. “That is a very big deal.”

Shayestehpour’s daughter is an 8th grader at Gunston Middle School, Kenmore’s fellow grantee, which happens to be equal in size—700 students. Like other districts or schools applying for a GEAR UP grant, Arlington had to show that at least 50 percent of the targeted students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Applicants also must demonstrate a commitment to encouraging parent and community involvement, providing mentoring or counseling, and offering courses that fulfill college-entrance requirements. Finally, at least one college must sign on to the partnership, in the hope that higher education leaders will help establish a K-16 relationship and, thus, facilitate school reform.

Kenmore Middle School is a squat, red-brick building. Although it’s thirsting for some fresh paint, the school is hardly dismal-looking. On a sunny day in May, a yellow banner cheerfully welcomes students from Somalia, El Salvador, Bolivia, Vietnam, and elsewhere as some of the school’s disadvantaged kids settle in for an after-school tutoring program, which runs Monday through Thursday, 2:45 to 4:30 p.m. Most of these students are here because their parents and teachers want them to be, yet they’re all quiet, even impressively so. Perhaps they’re simply worn out from “being locked down in school all day,” as one tutor puts it.

Tameka Logan, who runs these sessions for Greenbriar Learning Center, a GEAR UP community partner, says, “I’ve always had a passion to work with young people, especially at-risk youth, which is what I have here.” But, she adds, “some days are rougher than others.” The 22-year-old minister’s daughter clarifies later: “ ‘At-risk’ is such a broad term. It appears glamorous, like you’re saving the world. But I didn’t realize how deep the problems are for these kids.”

Sixth graders click with a virtual campus tour, but some say college seems very far off.
—David Kidd

In some cases, she explains, there’s conflict in the family, perhaps between a boy and the man who, though not his father, is living with his mother. At times, a kid can’t do his homework because he’s busy picking up younger siblings at school, making them dinner, trying to keep them off troubled streets. Says Logan: “Math is the last thing on your mind if you’ve got problems at home.”

One of Logan’s charges is Henry, a dark-haired, chubby-faced 6th grader who’s originally from El Salvador. “The best thing about [the tutoring] is we get to improve our grades,” he says. “We get a chance.” He plans to go to college, maybe for technology. Does he know anyone who has gone to college? “Mmmm,” he thinks. “My teachers.”

Annas, a 7th grader with a speech problem and a slight limp, adds his insight on what it’s like to be the child of immigrants. “In your house, there’s no one [who can] help you,” he says. “I usually help my sister,” who is 6. What appeals to Annas about the program “is just the fact that you have someone here to help you.”

That’s the message Ben Harris hopes to convey. As director of Greenbriar, he’s seen kids blossom when given support. “The transition from elementary school to middle school is huge,” he explains. “Some kids hide away in a shell for months, but we’ve seen them come out.” He mentions a success story, a boy who was brought into the tutoring sessions “kicking and screaming” but slowly warmed up. “I’d love to say he’s making the honor roll,” quips Harris, “but we’re still working toward that.”

In 1999, Arlington was awarded a $6.4 million grant. The funds are being distributed to the Kenmore and Gunston middle schools over a five- year period, with one new cohort added to the roster each year—6th graders only for the 1999-2000 school year, 6th and 7th graders last year, and so on. Thus far, 950 Arlington students have participated in GEAR UP, which has brought with it some serious bounty—everything from back-to-school supplies and smaller classes to college-campus visits and professional training for teachers. The schools’ higher ed partners, Marymount and George Mason universities, have provided summer programs and other assistance, and, this coming year, Arlington’s GEAR UP coordinators plan to launch a mock college- application process that will get students to choose schools, collect recommendations, and fill out the requisite forms.

The bell rings at Kenmore, and 6th graders tumble into a classroom with a sign that proclaims: “Thanks Mr. Brooks! Illiteracy is such a bummer.” The walls are festooned with student posters whose subject matter ranges from Winnie the Pooh to Shaq and the Beanstalk. Roy Brooks calls out: “Stop talking, guys.” A GEAR UP reading specialist, Brooks is sporting a tie brimming with Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, and other cartoon critters. He reminds his students that, with the year winding down, they should check their lockers for books that need to be returned to him. Soon, the class is off to the Mac lab for a Web search on colleges. On the way, one boy announces that “colleges are boring,” but Brooks is unperturbed. In fact, he seems not the least bit bothered by the remarks and questions the kids fire at him with the persistence of an automatic tennis-ball shooter.

Although the roughly 20 students take seats in the lab, this energetic bunch—a veritable cocktail of hormones and emotions—hardly seems primed for answering questions about tuition, SATs, and course selections. But in a flash, the kids are zipping through cyberspace, where a pink screen pops up: the Stanford University Web page. Brooks shouts suggestions to the less cybersavvy as the students click their way through virtual campus tours with varied success. Brooks’ hope is that these kids will become acquainted with not only the Net, but also college courses and entrance requirements.

Soon, the bell rings, ending the period. Thus released, Megan, a 12-year-old in white mule sneakers and an orange ankle chain, concedes that, yes, she did learn something from today’s Web exercise. Flashing her braces, she declares the University of Virginia and Duke “awesome.” As for preparing for college early, though, she says, “I’m not worried about it.”

At the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., backstage secrets are crowd-pleasers.
—David Kidd

GEAR UP, of course, is designed to encourage kids to focus on the future. And Joan Jackson, who, up until recently, served as coordinator of the Arlington program, believes the skills and study habits a student develops during middle school determine how well he or she performs in high school and beyond. Parents need to plan ahead, too, she says. “Our goal is for them to start thinking: Well, you know, it’s only a few years that your kid’s in high school. What are you going to do financially, [and] what are you going to do to get kids ready emotionally?” she said this past spring. “That’s why we start in middle school.”

Recent research backs up Jackson. The children of parents who didn’t go to college aren’t likely to go either: Only 27 percent attend four-year colleges, vs. 71 percent of kids whose parents are college-educated, according to the Department of Education’s 2001 “Condition of Education” report. But if those less fortunate students take rigorous classes, such as advanced math, in high school, they nearly close the gap—64 percent go to four- year colleges, the report states. So what determines whether they’ll take such courses? The answer is significant: Enrolling in advanced math classes in middle school.

Rep. Fattah, the author of the GEAR UP bill, warns that those disadvantaged students who aren’t given extra help during their middle school years may suffer greatly. “Those years are a time of tremendous change for kids,” he says, in terms of school, relationships, and their position in the world. “Middle schools are places in which many of our young people drop out, not physically but mentally. They stop trying.”

In many ways, Abdul Bouh Jr. is a typical middle school kid. He gets a kick out of tossing crumpled pieces of paper at his friends, and he’s been known to arrive home a half-hour later than his mother, Marcia Lanier, requested. The two live in a decent apartment, and Lanier is earning enough money to indulge her son’s string bass rental and what friends call her “obsession,” row after row of African American dolls—dolls with curly hair, floppy hats, colorful ruffles, and velvet Christmas finery.

Still, Lanier worries about her son. “It’s gonna be hard for him,” she predicts. “One, because he’s a minority. I tell him, ‘You have to give 150 percent because of that.’ ” Abdul also is big; at 13, he’s almost six feet tall, and his doctor says he’ll probably stretch to six feet eight inches. “He’ll be intimidating,” says Lanier. She worries, too, about outside influences, such as bad kids and the hip-hop scene. “I just don’t want him to end up where I work.” Lanier is a pretrial services officer at the U.S. Department of Justice. “You have to be careful,” she warns. “You can be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and your life can be gone.”

Seated at his dining room table, munching on a bag of potato chips, Abdul readily admits he’s sometimes distracted from his school work. There’s sports, TV, video games, and laser tag. And his friends, of course. “Yeah, some of them,” he says, “don’t want to do anything [school related].” But the biggest obstacle, he confesses, may be himself, “me being lazy and not wanting to do the work.”

Marcia Lanier hopes GEAR UP will help her son, Abdul Bouh, avoid distractions.
—David Kidd

Lanier throws her son a heated look that reads, “That boy knows exactly what he’s doing wrong.” It seems Abdul has fallen from the honor roll. His mom announces: “He’s smelling his underarms now.” Translation: He’s getting a little big for his britches. Before today’s visit, Lanier said her son has been “going through a phase of ‘Let me see what I can do to be the Tasmanian Devil. I don’t want to be smart. It’s nerdy.’ ” She explained that “he’s trying to find his way. He wants to do these academic things, but there’s peer pressure. I think GEAR UP will help with that.”

In fact, the program has helped Abdul focus at least somewhat and appreciate what he needs to do to succeed. After participating in an emergency room simulation last year, for example, he decided he wants to be a doctor. But, first, he’s set his sights on Hampton College, which he visited with GEAR UP and likes a lot—even though the folks there didn’t let him sneak a peek at the medical department’s stash of cadavers.

Whether GEAR UP will have a long-lasting effect on Abdul isn’t easy to predict. But so far, he says, it’s taught him that “what I do now probably is going to make a difference later. If I do better in school than I am now,” he adds, “I can be what I want to be.”

Like Abdul’s, the future of GEAR UP is not quite certain. When the Clinton-backed program was first installed, in the fall of 1999, the federal government began distributing $120 million to 164 local partnerships and 21 statewide programs. By 2001, the budget was $295 million, and the number of grant recipients had nearly doubled.

Now George W. Bush is asking Congress to reduce the funds to $227 million. He has also requested that there be no expenditures for new cohorts, a possible step toward phasing out the program, observers note. Lindsey Kozberg, spokesperson for Secretary of Education Rod Paige, explains the administration’s position this way: “What we’re doing is holding tight on the program and using the next several years to make sure it’s working before we add new cohorts.” Whatever the president’s wishes, GEAR UP still has some strong, mostly Democratic, backers on Capitol Hill, who, by midsummer, had not yet hashed out final appropriations numbers.

The reason that long-range support from most Republicans isn’t very likely is they either prefer more general education grants or they’d rather not support a Clinton-era initiative. Says Tom Wolanin, a senior associate at the nonprofit Institute for Higher Education, “By making GEAR UP so high profile, there was a short-term political gain for Bill Clinton and Chaka Fattah.” But there was a big down side: “They painted a Democratic bull’s-eye on it,” he says.

The threat of cutbacks is what convinced Joan Jackson, Arlington GEAR UP coordinator, to resign from her post in July. She left, she explains, because she preferred that the money for her salary—or at least part of it—be used in other ways. “They can bring in somebody with less experience and pay them less,” she says. “People say I’m being altruistic by leaving,” she adds. “I know the good work that we do.”

Though the Arlington program has had its share of successes, it’s also had problems. For one, career week at Marymount University in June was attended by only 13 students, compared with twice that number last year, in part because the Arlington district now requires GEAR UP to charge parents a $40 fee. And a parents’ event focusing on special education drew just four families because, as Jackson explained, “it was raining dogs, cats, and giraffes that night.” Also, a department at George Mason University, one of Arlington’s GEAR UP partners, withdrew its student tutors after a dispute over contractual arrangements.

Still, many parents rave about GEAR UP. They appreciate the workshops on topics such as teens and depression, the reminder phone calls made in four languages before each event, and the baby- sitting service that enables them to attend. Last year, the most popular event was an academic planning day, during which some 85 parents drafted college-prep course selections for their kids. “It taught me so much,” says Hattie Combs. “It was so helpful because I had no knowledge about what my son was supposed to be doing.”

Some experts admit that GEAR UP is flawed, but they also see a lot of promise in the program, which, they point out, is the most comprehensive of its kind. Patrick Terenzini, a Pennsylvania State University professor of education who just began studying the program’s components, says that judging GEAR UP now, so early in its existence, “is like yanking up a plant to see if its roots are OK.” He adds, however, that “if I were a betting person, I’d say it will prove effective.” Why? GEAR UP utilizes many of the tools that have been effective in other, smaller, programs.

Adrianna Kezar, director of the Educational Resources Information Center Clearinghouse on Higher Education, agrees with Terenzini, and she points out specific positives associated with early intervention programs like GEAR UP. Participants are twice as likely as their counterparts to enroll in four- year colleges, she says, and they are more self-confident kids who better understand financial aid and are less likely to drop out of school. Kezar doesn’t, however, buy into the notion that university partners can play a big role in reforming middle schools. “How, in God’s name, are they supposed to transform schools?” she asks.

Barbara Bennison, director of federal relations for California State University, feels that even if they can’t transform middle schools, colleges can play a strong role in helping them. So she is disturbed by the notion that GEAR UP might be cut. The more aid, the better, she believes. “There are so many students that need to be reached, and there’s not nearly enough money to go around,” she explains. “Anything we can do to lift the boat for everyone is necessary.”

Arguing the finer points of middle school policy is a luxury many students can’t afford. And, criticisms aside, the fact is that GEAR UP is educating and, in many cases, inspiring kids. On this sunny day in June, for example, the Arlington GEAR UP students are getting a glimpse backstage at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. Dawn McAndrews, the theater’s director of education, serves as tour guide, describing the singular challenge of repertory theater—a day spent rehearsing for hours followed that night by a performance of a completely different play.

At one point, a jovial stage manager steps in to demonstrate to the handful of 12-year-olds how a 4,000-pound wall is moved downstage during a show. “Ooohs” and “aahs” come from the kids. They’re even more impressed by a hurricane lamp rigged to fade out, the Velcro secret behind 30-second costume changes, and the old-fashioned pulleys and high-tech computers that work together seamlessly to create onstage illusions.

Soon, it’s time to go. The students offer thank-yous and head back to the bus that’s been taking them so many places during their weeklong look at college and careers. But the question remains: Will poking at sheep brains, posing under spotlights, and chatting with nurses, researchers, and telecom gurus pay off? Elise, a 6th grader with a bob cut and splashy shorts, weighs in: “I thought this was going to be like camp,” she says of the summer program. “But it turns out you really learn a lot.”

Tamara Davis, the Marymount University education professor who supervises this GEAR UP project for Arlington, echoes Elise’s assessment. “It gets the kids to realize that college is the key and that college is obtainable,” she says.

And although GEAR UP has yet to be measured for concrete results, Davis, for one, would be sorry to see the program go. “This really has an effect on them,” she says. “It’s something that will stick with them forever.”

Teacher Magazine’s coverage of middle schools is supported in part by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.


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