Program gets grant to continue decades of work
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 press.com or 423-7576592.