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GEAR UP Program could net more than $20 million

Aug. 30, 2005

KALAMAZOO--The Western Michigan University GEAR UP Program, which prepares at-risk students for college, is achieving great success both in the school districts it serves and in the halls of Congress.

The program's first phase, which first won Congressional budget approval in 2000, has been extended from five to six years with the help of a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, GEAR UP is now entering a second six-year initiative with the help of close to $2.8 million in annual funding from the Department of Education. The total is expected to reach $16.8 million over the course of the program.

Both the one-year extension and additional six-year funding for GEAR UP's second phase reflect the strides the program has made in member school districts, says Dr. Joseph Kretovics, a WMU professor of teaching, learning and leadership and project director.

"The success has been enormous," Kretovics says. "In my estimation, it is one of the most, if not the most, successful school restructuring programs in the country."

GEAR UP--Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs--is a partnership involving universities, school districts, communities, businesses, cultural centers and social service agencies from three Midwestern states. Its goal is to restructure public schools, provide extensive professional development and support students and families, with the ultimate goal of increasing the number of students attending college.

"This grant is a big win for our local students who are in need," said Congressman Fred Upton. "GEAR UP is such an important program that provides at-risk students the opportunity to further their education. I applaud Western Michigan University for its commitment and dedication to our local youth. The partnership between Western and our school districts has been invaluable, and I am pleased that the program will continue to be an integral part of the success story, as at-risk students excel in their pursuit of higher education."

The collaborative nature of the program distinguishes it from other education reform efforts, says WMU President Judith I. Bailey.

"GEAR UP is a perfect example of how to leverage resources through strategically developed partnerships," Bailey says. "This effort was conceived with the cooperation of other organizations and universities. Its hallmark has been collaboration with the communities served and with the businesses, social and cultural resources in those communities. It's an effective model with national potential, and we deeply appreciate Congressman Upton's support for GEAR UP as it moved through the budget process."

One of the program's beauties is that it's not all about book learning. GEAR UP's hands-on activities have taken students to the U.S. Space Academy in Huntsville, Ala., and to the Minnesota wilderness to study ecology.

Two Kalamazoo schools--Milwood Middle School and Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts--will be added to GEAR UP's new initiative. The program will continue serving students in Battle Creek and Bangor, Mich., as well as students in Toledo, Ohio, through a partnership with Bowling Green State University, co-directed by Drs. William Armaline and Kathy Farber. Students in Harvey, Ill., were part of the first GEAR UP program through a partnership with the Small Schools Workshop, formerly housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

School districts with GEAR UP centers have made significant academic strides, Kretovics says. One indicator is newly released results required under federal No Child Left Behind legislation. GEAR UP schools have shown great improvement in meeting Adequate Yearly Progress requirements mandated by the legislation.

For example, Toledo Waite High School jumped three tiers on Ohio's state report card, from the lowest "academic emergency" to the second highest "effective" rating, and East Toledo Junior High jumped two tiers. In addition, more than 90 percent of Waite High students passed reading standards on the Ohio Graduation Test.

Results in Michigan also have been encouraging. Bangor Middle School has met AYP requirements for the past four years and has been taken off the list of targeted schools that need to improve. In addition, Bangor High School met AYP for the first time this year. And in the Battle Creek Public School District, all middle schools met AYP for the first time this year. Battle Creek High School almost met AYP requirements for the first time, but scores were low in just one subgroup. The district also reports a 15 percent increase in the number of sixth-graders and a 29 percent increase in seventh-graders who have met or exceeded standards in reading.

All of the districts report higher passing rates and better grades, decreases in the drop out rate, suspensions and absenteeism and increases in the number of students taking advanced courses. Kretovics acknowledges that GEAR UP by itself hasn't done it all, but it has played a key role.

In essence, GEAR UP works by helping teachers and students help themselves.

"Each school and school district has the flexibility to do what they need to do within GEAR UP's goals, based on the needs and strengths of their teachers and students," Kretovics says. "They all do it a little differently."

The new GEAR UP initiative will take what has been learned in the first program and replicate it in each of the other districts, taking "best practices" and expanding their reach.

"GEAR UP does not use a prescriptive, cookie-cutter approach," Kretovics says. "It's an emergent program based on empowering teachers and their students. That, in fact, is the strength of this program."

Another strength is that GEAR UP funds are matched dollar for dollar by school districts through corporate sponsorship, foundation grants, university matches and other donations. That's partly why it has caught on with federal officials, because it is hoped GEAR UP programs will become self-sustaining in their home school districts. Teachers like that, too.

"We have the teachers excited now," says Shelly Carpenter, GEAR UP project manager. "They can see with this second GEAR UP project that their funding source isn't going away."

Teachers and administrators have been given instructions on how to write grant proposals and to design programs that are creative and innovative and likely to attract sponsors.

With the matching funds included, the new initiative totals about $35 million. Those funds will pay for exciting learning opportunities for students, their teachers and parent chaperones. In previous activities, students from Bangor High School traveled to Boundary Waters, Minn., for an ecology camp, where moose sightings intermixed with research projects on plant, animal, fungi and bacteria species. Students from East Toledo Junior High gathered data on the effects of water currents and depths on fish populations in Lake Erie. Bangor Middle School students went to Gettysburg to study the Civil War. Hundreds of other students came to WMU to study math and engineering on campus. Other destinations have included Chicago and Mackinac Island. The activities were then woven into the class curriculum. So far, the project has served more than 10,000 students.

"It's hands-on learning at its best," Carpenter says.

Kretovics says GEAR UP's accomplishments don't belong to those who run the program.

"The success of GEAR UP is based upon the hard work of teachers, students and administrators in each of the districts," Kretovics says. "University faculty members have helped facilitate the change process in the schools and we've been able to do that through GEAR UP funding."

Visit www.wmich.edu/gearup for more information.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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