Middle School Students 'Gear Up' For College
Rosie Martin, an intense teacher with glasses perched on the end of her nose and an oversized passion that belies her small stature, is getting worked up. She can't help raising her voice when talking about the middle school students she hugs, grows frustrated with, and inevitably mothers.
Most are poor. Many come from broken families. A few have called the back seat of a car home.
"My students think college is for rich people," she said recently after class at John Paul Jones Middle School, a 1,200-student school that houses grades 5 through 8 in a north Philadelphia blue-collar neighborhood. "If we don't show them something more, this is not in their world. We need to open their eyes."
Research shows a smaller percentage of low-income students, even high-achieving ones, enroll in college than their better-off peers. But Ms. Martin and others in this 208,000-student school district hope a federal initiative to encourage low-income students to consider college early on in their academic careers can help raise aspirations.
Gaining Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or Gear Up, is a national effort that partners middle schools with colleges, community organizations, and businesses. Programs vary at individual schools, but core elements remain the same: to promote rigorous, college-bound coursework, to work with a single grade level, and to increase college awareness.
The $200 million program, started in 1998, builds on existing efforts that use mentoring, tuition assistance, and curriculum support to retain students and expose them to college. It targets students starting no later than 7th grade and serves more than 700,000 students in 237 partnerships.
Experts say many students from poor families don't pursue college because they lack access to information about higher education and don't realize the importance of taking college-preparatory classes. In fact, U.S. Department of Education research shows that more affluent students are about seven times more likely than those from disadvantaged backgrounds to earn four-year college degrees by age 24, and that a baccalaureate degree can boost annual income by as much as $15,000 a year.
President Clinton is one of Gear Up's primary backers, encouraging colleges to work with students as early as 6th grade. Mr. Clinton, who visited a Philadelphia middle school last spring to encourage Gear Up students, wants to increase funding to $325 million next year to include another 1 million students.
"This is a story of what partnerships can be," Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., a Philadelphia native who sponsored the Gear Up legislation, said at a press conference in Washington last week as 900 educators, policymakers, and business leaders gathered in nearby Leesburg, Va., for the first national meeting of Gear Up program directors and partners.
"This is not some unproven strategy. We know this works," Mr. Fattah said. "We are making a commitment to these young people until college."
Twenty-one Philadelphia middle schools participate in Gear Up. The schools, under a five-year grant, started with 7th graders and expanded their reach to include 8th graders this year. Next year, 9th graders will be added.
Yolanda Gonzalez, a Gear Up coordinator who oversees the program for several Philadelphia schools, understands the challenges young people face because she grew up in the same neighborhoods the program targets. A college graduate, she prides herself on being a role model for students. A few weeks ago, she took 50 students to visit Temple University, one of Jones Middle School's Gear Up partners.
"It is not just about walking around campus," Ms. Gonzalez said. "We are putting them in a classroom experience. ... We let them know these students at Temple are in [their] own backyard, there is scholarship aid available. They begin to see this as real. It makes them see college is possible."
Steven Zwerling, a senior program officer with the Ford Foundation, said many similar programs work with small groups of students to prepare them for college, but fail to reach an entire school or district. "These programs don't work," Mr. Zwerling said. "We need to find things that work across the broader swath of the educational system. ... Gear Up is about these things."
Nationally, evidence is mounting that Gear Up makes an impact. In Oklahoma, educators credit Gear Up with helping to more than double participation in a program that enrolls low-income students in rigorous academic work and makes them eligible for free college tuition.
In Houston, educators have added 15 math and reading teachers to reduce class sizes at six middle schools, and some 100 teachers attended professional- development classes to better prepare them to teach advanced classes. The project also includes an outreach effort: Teachers and community partners visit 500 6th graders' families to talk about academic preparation for college.
More colleges and K-12 systems are forming partnerships, said Jan Somerville, the director of the National Association of System Heads, a network of state university and K-12 leaders that tries to foster such relationships between precollegiate and postsecondary systems.
"People are realizing the standards-based work of the K-12 system has forced people to look at the basic systemic issues between us," Ms. Somerville said. "We are much more interdependent that we realize."
Calculators, College Dreams
Lori Schorr, the director of school and community partnerships at Temple University, said secondary and postsecondary systems have been reluctant to work together for far too long.
Through Gear Up, about 200 Temple students spend six hours a week tutoring middle school students. The university also offers professional development for middle school teachers and has worked with the school system to help align curriculum standards and assessment.
"We are going to have more remediation problems," Ms. Schorr said, "if we do not think more systematically about how to prepare teachers and prepare our students."
Tom Blecker, a 13- year-old 8th grader at Jones, started thinking more seriously about college after a Gear Up-sponsored trip to Temple University last month. "My parents didn't go [to college], but I want to," he said. "Not just to get a good job but to learn more."
Like many students, however, he worries about how he will afford college. "I might go into the Army," he said, "and have them help."
On a recent Friday, 8th grade math teacher Steven Zane has a rapt audience at Bache-Martin Elementary School, a K-8 school a short drive from Jones. He leads his class through problems as students use graphing calculators purchased with Gear Up money.
Keith Look, another Gear Up coordinator for several Philadelphia schools, said the $100 calculators fit into a focus on enriching schools' science and math curricula. Bache Martin has partnered with the Community College of Philadelphia, which provides faculty members to teach after-school science clubs.
Ultimately, Philadelphia Gear Up officials hope the program folds into so many facets of school life that it becomes a natural part of the day, said Mr. Look, who hopes to tap as as many resources as possible to bring that about.
"There are a lot of resources that exist outside of schools, but there often is a gap in communication," he said. "We are trying to build that bridge."
Coverage of the middle grades is supported in part by a grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
Vol. 20, Issue 10, Page 6Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as Middle School Students 'Gear Up' For College