|EDINBURG, September 30 - Region 1 Education Service Center leaders say they are very disappointed to learn they will not be getting federal funding to expand GEAR UP.
UT-Pan American also missed out on funding from the Department of Education for the popular program.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Tina Atkins, administrator for college and career readiness at Region 1, said her institution applied for two GEAR UP grants, one in the $5 million range and one in $3 million range.
“We knew that this was a smaller competition but we really felt like, it that was out there to go for. We really needed to try to get those resources for our kids and their families,” Atkins said. “It hurts because you feel like there’s another group of kids that we could be addressing. Our school districts are really good about taking what GEAR UP brings to the table and using it as a springboard. I feel very lucky with the funding we have got, to be honest with you. But it would have been wonderful to have been able to expand.”
Atkins said that with one of the grant applications the plan was to address the needs of early college high schools. “It would have allowed us to do some work specific to early college high schools,” she said.
GEAR UP stands with Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. The Department of Education announced only two winners in Texas in the latest round of grant applications: De Soto ISD and Texas A&M University-Kingsville. TAMUK’s reach extends to Willacy County so additional students in that county are expected to benefit from GEAR UP.
Atkins said Region 1 won a “big competition” for GEAR UP funding in 2011. She said the institution hopes to win another one in 2017. This year’s grant application process was for a “smaller” competition, Atkins said. “We were hoping to apply for another set of schools,” she said.
Asked to explain how GEAR UP works, Atkins said: “GEAR UP takes a group of students in 7th grade. The first group was about 10,600 kids that we started with in 7th grade and we followed those kids all the way through the freshman year in college. We provide services to students and their families to increase the graduation rate and the matriculation to college. There is a myriad of services.”
Atkins said Region 1 believes there are certain areas of educational assistance that are really important. “One of those being what happens between the teacher and the student in classroom. So, we invest a lot in resources for the classroom, such as professional development for the teacher. We also invest in student experiences, such as HESTEC at UT-Pan American.”
Other services provided with GEAR UP money, Atkins said, include College for All conferences for students and their parents. “We invest in leadership training for students, just a myriad of things. One of the pieces that we really spent a lot of time on is financial literacy and financial aid; such as how do you pay for college?”
Atkins said one of the things Region 1 learned early on is that it is one thing to tell kids they can go to college and another to really prepare them.
“We want to make sure they take the right courses, that they have the content knowledge and that families and parents know how to pay for it,” Atkins said. “We do a lot of counsellor training also. I think one of the things we have really tried to do is to listen to schools, to parents and students. We use our student survey data to target the needs of our students and our families, we try very hard to listen to them and not just make assumptions.”
Atkins added that she personally feels “very lucky” that Region 1 has the resources it has through existing grants.
“It just makes us want to maximize these even further. It would have been very nice to have gotten at least one of the (GEAR UP) ones we applied for. But, I count my blessings every day that I have the ability to have access to these kinds of resources to impact our community. I am not going to lie: the extra resources would really have helped. But, we are very lucky we have the grant we have. I really think we are very blessed with the students we have, with the teachers we have, with the parents we have and so I really think the future looks bright.”
Cindy Valdez is co-director of UTPA’s GEAR UP program. Valdez explained that GEAR UP is a federal grant competition that focuses on college readiness. She said UTPA applied for $5 million for its GEAR UP efforts.
“It was a very competitive process this year. Only two grants were awarded for Texas, one for Texas A&M Kingsville and one for De Soto School District,” she said. Valdez also pointed out that UTPA does not currently have any GEAR UP funding. “We had one from 2000 to 2011. UTPA has had very successful GEAR UP grants before. If we had been successful with our application this year we would have provided academic support and college readiness support for the school districts and the students in the Valley.”
Valdez said having federal GEAR UP funding would have allowed UTPA to provide more services to students of the Valley, beginning in the 7th grade through high school graduation. “Obviously everybody wants to secure a grant but the GEAR UP competition is extremely competitive because many states are applying for it, many partnerships are applying for it, and many individual school districts are applying for it. So, it is incredibly competitive. We have not been funded for the past several years. It would have been nice to have been funded,” Valdez said.
Valdez said although UTPA has not had GEAR UP funding for several years it still provides a variety of different outreach services to school districts. “Obviously, with federal funding, the amount of services and the depth of services would be increased,” she said.
Valdez said the difference between success in securing GEAR UP funding and not being successful can be measured in tenths of a point.
“The GEAR UP program is making great strides nationally. They start early in the 7th grade and work with students throughout high school and through graduation and so having federal funding to provide support services is very helpful. Fortunately, the Rio Grande Valley has a very successful GEAR UP project out of Region 1 that is keeping the momentum going. Obviously, having federal funding is very helpful.”