Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
June 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 9

GEAR UP for College

A school district–university partnership gives low-income and minority students a vision of college success—and the support they need to make that vision a reality.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

GEAR UP for College- thumbnail

Heather K. Sheridan-Thomas

Although the school day is over, the library at Binghamton High School in Binghamton, New York, buzzes with activity. Sixty high school students and a dozen college-age tutors are scattered in clusters around the tables in the large, bright room. Some sit in twos or threes at the library's computers. The students are an even mix of males and females. About half are African American, and a number of other ethnicities are represented.
Two program coordinators walk around the room chatting quietly with the students. A group of high school students join a college chemistry major for a tutorial on elements and compounds. One tutor helps an 11th grader understand her social studies assignment on Winston Churchill, working with her to restate the textbook passage in her own words and offering interesting details not found in the book. Another tutor helps two 9th graders make connections between their biology reading and their own lives. Many tutor-student pairs work on math homework.
The relaxed yet purposeful interactions suggest that many of the tutor-student pairs have worked together frequently during the year, building relationships and understanding of the students' learning styles. They are accomplishing valuable academic work in a safe, positive atmosphere. Before students and tutors leave for the evening, they will share pizza and spend time socializing.
Across town, similar after-school programs are in operation at Binghamton's East and West Middle Schools. Students do homework with the help of college tutors, teachers, and program coordinators. At one school, university physics students engage middle schoolers in building spaghetti bridges and talking about the concepts of force and gravity. At the other school, a gang prevention expert presents a workshop on prejudice and discrimination. Later, these middle school students will also eat pizza and have time to chat with friends before leaving for home. On other afternoons, they might participate in a media awareness discussion presented by a local public broadcasting station, watch a performance by a step dance group, or attend a career workshop presented by a local business institute.

Closing College Preparation Gaps

These after-school activities are sponsored by GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a program funded through federal grants and designed to increase academic achievement and college attendance for low-income and minority students. The GEAR UP model served more than a million students in FY 2005 through grants to 36 states and 209 school district–university partnerships. The program is based on research suggesting that efforts to encourage low-income and minority students to attend college need to begin by middle school (Wimberly & Noeth, 2005). GEAR UP programs offer a host of services to prepare low-income students to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.
The Binghamton University/Binghamton City School District GEAR UP program serves entire cohorts of 6th grade students in the district's two middle schools, following them as they progress toward high school graduation. All students in each cohort participate in such GEAR UP activities as field trips, workshops, and summer work opportunities. But the heart of the program is the tutoring and mentoring matches between university students and those cohort students who need extra assistance. Last year, 140 tutors and 90 mentors participated, including both undergraduate and graduate students. These college students underwent screening, attended an orientation and training session, and were assigned to one of the district's two middle schools or the high school.
GEAR UP mentors and tutors assist students in a variety of settings. Mentors develop a trusting relationship with one student over time, discussing school and social issues as well as college and career decisions. Tutors work with students during study halls, lunch periods, and after-school sessions, as well as in classrooms. All tutors receive training in strategic tutoring, a method designed to help their tutees gain academic independence. In addition, tutors bring the content they are learning in their university courses to their tutoring assignments. A middle school teacher commented,I can put a tutor with the neediest students and get the students through [the work]. The tutors are very good—they help the students but don't do the work for them. They are very productive—they facilitate getting the work done.
Student participants indicate that they value the college tutors and mentors for taking an interest in their lives, being willing to listen, and providing support for homework and in-class academic tasks. As one GEAR UP coordinator noted, mentors and tutors provide "the personal touch." These college students of diverse backgrounds also provide a model of what is possible—an especially valuable model for students who have no family members who have attended college.
In addition to the tutoring/mentoring component, the Binghamton GEAR UP program's success depends on the following features.

Always Room for Improvement

Since Binghamton initiated GEAR UP in 1999, program evaluators have collected multiple forms of data that show evidence of success. These include parent and student surveys and interviews, teacher focus groups, interviews with school and district administrators, observation of after-school programs, evaluations of tutor/mentor training sessions and of the tutor/mentor experience, and interviews with the GEAR UP program director and coordinators.
Teachers and administrators consistently agree that GEAR UP provides "huge academic benefits" and promotes college awareness in students. Parents and students comment positively on the college information they receive, the quality of the tutoring, and the high level of support provided by GEAR UP coordinators. Case studies of students receiving tutoring and after-school services show improved attendance rates and higher numbers of courses passed.
Despite qualitative evidence suggesting the successes of Binghamton's GEAR UP program, there is always room for improvement. The program staff continually works to develop a more diverse group of tutors and mentors. Although the current program attracts a relatively diverse group of college students, the program needs more male tutors (especially African Americans) to serve as powerful role models for secondary students.
Other challenges in implementing the program have included developing and maintaining relationships with teachers and administrators, as well as reaching parents. Having a district administrative liaison and accessible coordinators in each school has been crucial to building relationships with teachers and principals. In addition, district teachers and administrators are included on the GEAR UP Steering Committee. The program has reached parents by holding information sessions in community centers, hosting social events, and providing information about the program at school events. Next year, the program will strengthen parent connections by offering high-interest classes for parents and students together in the evenings on such topics as computers and cooking.
Quantitative data showing gains in academic achievement for Binghamton students involved in GEAR UP have been hard to come by, partly because of the cohort model that treats entire grade levels of students as the GEAR UP population, rather than targeting specific students. Student achievement in the district's secondary schools—as measured by New York State assessments—has improved since GEAR UP was implemented, and graduation and college attendance rate for the first cohort of GEAR UP graduates (class of 2005) appear to have increased. However, the lack of a comparison group has made it difficult to distinguish the effects of GEAR UP from those of other improvements in the school district's education programs.
In the new grant cycle, an updated student data system will enable GEAR UP to track the progress of matched groups who participate in the program at different levels (comparing students who participate only in basic services, such as college trips, with the smaller group of students who consistently receive tutoring or mentoring during school and in after-school programs). The progress of these high-service students, many of whom are at risk for school failure, is of particular interest in assessing the "value added" by the GEAR UP program.

Spreading the Benefits

GEAR UP engages students, builds on their strengths, and supports their academic success. Other school districts can replicate the strongest aspects of this program with or without grant funding if they are willing to put resources into building connections with local institutions of higher education, community agencies, and businesses. Through these partnerships, educators can help low-income and minority students envision themselves as college students, as well as giving them the motivation and support they need to reach that goal.

Covey, S. (1999). The 7 habits of highly effective teens. Utah: Franklin Covey Publishers. Wimberly, G. L., & Noeth, R. J. (2005). College readiness begins in middle school: ACT policy report. [Online]. Available: www.act.org/path/policy/reports

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image el_2006summer.jpg
Helping All Students Succeed
Go To Publication