Pro­gram gets grant to con­tinue decades of work

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - REGION - BY MEGHAN MANGRUM STAFF WRITER

Stu­dents in some of the high­est-needs schools in Hamil­ton County will con­tinue to get con­cen­trated sup­port to help them grad­u­ate from high school and com­plete col­lege, thanks to the re­newal of a fed­eral grant this month.

GEAR UP, a grant-funded U.S. De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, got the go-ahead to plan for its next co­hort with a more than $5.1 mil­lion award this fall. GEAR UP tracks groups of stu­dents from sixth and sev­enth grade through their first years of col­lege or post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion. The lo­cal pro­gram has served stu­dents since its first grant cy­cle in 1999.

Since 2006, the pro­gram’s par­tic­i­pants have in­creased grad­u­a­tion rates from 58 to 70 per­cent.

“Th­ese stu­dents run into a lot of ob­sta­cles and hur­dles,” said Hunter Huck­abay, the di­rec­tor of the pro­gram. “We are eval­u­ated based on if we are get­ting stu­dents ready for col­lege and if they are suc­cess­ful once they get there.”

Huck­abay said Hamil­ton County

Schools’ cre­ation of the Op­por­tu­nity Zone, the plan pro­posed by Su­per­in­ten­dent Bryan John­son in 2017 to sup­port the district’s 12 worst-per­form­ing schools, has changed and re­newed how the pro­gram can plug in and help stu­dents.

“A re­ally new as­pect of this work that was true as we were wrap­ping up our last pro­ject is the ad­vent of the Op­por­tu­nity Zone,” Huck­abay said. “When we wrote this ap­pli­ca­tion, we paid close at­ten­tion to what their ob­jec­tives were: cre­at­ing those pipe­line of grad­u­ates who are pre­pared to read and show the nu­mer­acy skills that you need to go into the work­force or to go into col­lege.”

Typ­i­cally, GEAR UP has fo­cused on stu­dents from low-per­form­ing schools and those who come from com­mu­ni­ties of con­cen­trated poverty. Now that many of those schools are served by the Op­por­tu­nity Zone, GEAR UP has a nat­u­ral fit.

The next group of stu­dents for the pro­gram will be pulled from cur­rent sixth- and sev­enth-graders at Dale­wood Mid­dle School, East Lake Academy, Or­chard Knob Mid­dle School and Chat­tanooga Girls Lead­er­ship Academy, one of Hamil­ton County’s char­ter schools.

“The GEAR UP pro­ject pick­ing up a new cy­cle is a huge win for the stu­dents of the Op­por­tu­nity Zone,” said John Cun­ning­ham, co­or­di­na­tor of com­mu­nity schools and mem­ber of the Op­por­tu­nity Zone lead­er­ship team for Hamil­ton County Schools. “Dr. Huck­abay and his team have con­sulted with the Op­por­tu­nity Zone team through their ap­pli­ca­tion cy­cle and our vi­sions for the stu­dents in our zone are iden­ti­cal.”

Cun­ning­ham and the Op­por­tu­nity Zone team have been work­ing on rolling out com­mu­nity school struc­tures in sev­eral of the Op­por­tu­nity Zone schools. Com­mu­nity schools typ­i­cally of­fer ad­di­tional wrap­around sup­ports like af­ter-school pro­grams, par­ent classes and ad­di­tional re­sources, and pull in com­mu­nity part­ners.

Both Huck­abay and Cun­ning­ham em­pha­sized that GEAR UP will fit nat­u­rally into those mod­els.

“As we fo­cus on the mid­dle schools in the zone and the com­mu­nity school model, the suc­cess­ful grant pro­posal lays out a path­way to in­te­grate stu­dent sup­ports, teacher sup­ports, par­ent en­gage­ment and ex­panded learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties that will leave com­mu­nity school struc­tures in place as the GEAR UP co­hort moves into high school and col­lege,” Cun­ning­ham said.

The pro­gram will track the co­hort’s mem­bers’ at­ten­dance, aca­demic per­for­mance and dis­ci­plinary re­fer­rals, pro­vide teach­ing as­sis­tants to se­lect classes, hold af­ter­school pro­grams and sum­mer pro­grams, take stu­dents on col­lege trips as well as work with par­ents to help them pre­pare fi­nan­cially for their child to go to col­lege.

Huck­abay also said the new grant al­lows the pro­gram a lit­tle more free­dom to en­gage with teach­ers and post­sec­ondary part­ners.

As more stu­dents go on to col­lege — the num­ber of pro­gram par­tic­i­pants en­rolling in col­lege has in­creased from 21 to 39 per­cent since 2006 — Huck­abay and pro­gram part­ners have set their eyes on the next goal: en­sur­ing those stu­dents com­plete col­lege and earn a de­gree or cre­den­tial.

“Where we have seen the suc­cess and where we have best been able to track it is on in­creased grad­u­a­tion rates and low­er­ing of the dropout rate and a de­cent in­crease in col­lege en­roll­ment,” he said. “What we need to get a han­dle on is not just get­ting kids to get to col­lege but how many can you get through col­lege ad we will be able to do a bet­ter job of track­ing that this go-around.”

In­di­vid­ual GEAR UP pro­grams also have the flex­i­bil­ity to pro­vide min­i­grants to teach­ers and in­sti­tu­tions. Pre­vi­ously, GEAR UP helped pro­vide a col­lege tran­si­tion co­or­di­na­tor po­si­tion at Chat­tanooga State Com­mu­nity Col­lege to sup­port it’s stu­dents once they were on the col­lege’s cam­pus.

Huck­abay hopes the pro­gram’s 20 years of suc­cess in Hamil­ton County will con­tinue with the next co­hort.

We like to think we’ve played a huge part, but [with] the com­mu­nity-wide fo­cus [on ed­u­ca­tion], every­one seems re­ally di­aled in,” he pre­vi­ously told the Times Free Press.

Con­tact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mman­grum@times­free or 423-7576592.

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