Last Friday, more than 1,500 seventh graders embraced their future at the Gear Up Birmingham pep rally at Parker High School. Birmingham city students dressed in red, green, orange and purple meandered toward the college information tents set up by schools such as ASU, UAB, Lawson State, and Samford while others took their turn on moonwalks and blow-up slides.
For many of the students, this event will mark their first encounter with college, but it won’t be their last thanks to the Gear Up grant.
Gear Up, short for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is a $19.6 million federal grant awarded to Birmingham City Schools for 6th and 7th graders. The goal of the grant is to decrease the high school dropout rate, increase the number of students applying for post-secondary education and increase students’ college success after graduation by using academic enrichment programs, tutoring, mentoring and other tools.
“Research shows that it is the counselling and the college tours and visits that will increase the likelihood of students that want to attend college,” said Project Coordinator Donna P. Turner. According to Turner, Interim Superintendent Spencer Horn worked with SpectrumRED (Spectrum Research Evaluation and Development) to write up the proposal last summer, and it was approved in October.
Thomas Shuster, CEO of SpectrumRED, said his company’s team of evaluators will work with Birmingham City Schools and the Gear Up grant to measure the effects of the program as it follows the students through their first year of college.
Frankie Gray, BCS director for middle school and K-8, and a board member for Gear Up, commented that the mission of the program is to determine what actually helps get kids to college.
“This is a great thing for our kids. It truly helps prepare them for the real world,” Gray said. “It’ll be that proof that the federal government needs that this is the right model to get our kids and our nation where we want to go.”
A major benefit of the grant is it will enable the students in the Gear Up program to attend any technical or community college for two years for free. For universities, the program aids students in receiving scholarships.
The program also offers training to teachers, assuring better education even when the money is gone, but Turner doesn’t intend to let the money disappear with the 2020 and 2021 graduating classes.
“One of the goals is to create sustainability,” Turner said. “We don’t want the programs to come and go. We want whatever we have in place to be sustained. So, I’m counting on the assistance of the principals, community, parents, teachers to help us to sustain what we’re doing right now.”
Mia Bell, parent of a Huffman middle school student, is now back in college and believes it’s helping teach her child the importance of education. She hopes this rally will help other students understand that as well.
“I like the fact that the different universities are here because a lot of our kids don’t have influences that will push them to college,” Bell said. “It says, ‘Hey, I can do this’… ‘Hey, you have a choice’.”
Willie Goldsmith, principal of Green Acres Middle School is aware of how instrumental parents and community are to a student’s college success. The Gear Up pep rally was as much for the kids as the parents, he said.
“Some of our parents have never really seen college campuses and so a lot of these kids will be first generation when they go,” Goldsmith said. “That experience, that connection is important because if you don’t know about something, don’t understand it, then it’s kind of hard to know the importance of it…This gives them vision.”
Turner said she hoped the rally would make kids become aware of the importance of college at an early age, but she didn’t want to make it too serious or overwhelming. She just wants them to start thinking about the question: What do I want to do when I grow up?