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Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a discretionary grant program designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

"This grant will help build a solid foundation for our children and will set them up to succeed, by being better prepared for post-secondary education and to join the workforce."

Robert J. Bentley,  Alabama Governor

Gear Up News

  • Why We Desperately Need To Bring Back Vocational Training In Schools
  • In a situation where 70% of high school students do not go to college, nearly half of those who do go fail to graduate, and over half of the graduates are unemployed or underemployed, is vocational education really expendable? Or is it the smartest investment we could make in our children, our businesses, and our country’s economic future?

    It is true that earnings studies show college graduates earn more over a lifetime than high school graduates. However, these studies have some weaknesses. For example, over 53% of recent college graduates are unemployed or under-employed. And income for college graduates varies widely by major – philosophy graduates don’t nearly earn what business studies graduates do. Finally, earnings studies compare college graduates to all high school graduates. But the subset of high school students who graduate with vocational training – those who go into well-paying, skilled jobs – the picture for non-college graduates looks much rosier.

    Yet despite the growing evidence that four-year college programs serve fewer and fewer of our students, states continue to cut vocational programs. In 2013, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District, with more than 600,000 students, made plans to cut almost all of its CTE programs by the end of the year. The justification, of course, is budgetary; these programs (which include auto body technology, aviation maintenance, audio production, real estate and photography) are expensive to operate. But in a situation where 70% of high school students do not go to college, nearly half of those who do go fail to graduate, and over half of the graduates are unemployed or underemployed, is vocational education really expendable? Or is it the smartest investment we could make in our children, our businesses, and our country’s economic future?

    The U.S. economy has changed. The manufacturing sector is growing and modernizing, creating a wealth of challenging, well-paying, highly skilled jobs for those with the skills to do them. The demise of vocational education at the high school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a wealth of career opportunities for both under-employed college grads and high school students looking for direct pathways to interesting, lucrative careers. Many of the jobs in manufacturing are attainable through apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and vocational programs offered at community colleges. They don’t require expensive, four-year degrees for which many students are not suited.

    And contrary to what many parents believe, students who get job specific skills in high school and choose vocational careers often go on to get additional education. The modern workplace favors those with solid, transferable skills who are open to continued learning. Most young people today will have many jobs over the course of their lifetime, and a good number will have multiple careers that require new and more sophisticated skills.

    Just a few decades ago, our public education system provided ample opportunities for young people to learn about careers in manufacturing and other vocational trades. Yet, today, high-schoolers hear barely a whisper about the many doors that the vocational education path can open. The “college-for-everyone” mentality has pushed awareness of other possible career paths to the margins. The cost to the individuals and the economy as a whole is high. If we want everyone’s kid to succeed, we need to bring vocational education back to the core of high school learning.

  • President Obama Announces High School Graduation Rate Has Reached New High

  • Today, President Obama will be at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. to announce that America’s high school graduation rate has reached a record new high of 83.2 percent.

    The high school graduation rate has risen steadily over President Obama’s time in office, growing by about four percentage points since the 2010-2011 school year -- the first year all states used a consistent, four-year adjusted measure of high school completion. This increase reflects important progress schools across the country are making to better prepare students for college and careers after they graduate. President Obama will highlight investments and resources available for students to earn a degree beyond high school, and all his Administration has accomplished to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for America’s learners, from cradle through career. He will also reflect on the work yet to be accomplished to ensure that every student has the chance to succeed in a 21st century economy.

    Promising Gains for All Students

    Once again, the 2014-2015 graduation rates released today show progress for all reported groups of students, including students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners. Black, Hispanic, and Native American students continued to narrow the gap between their graduation rates and those of their white peers, even as all groups made progress:


    Graduation Rates by Subgroup of Students

    Year-by-Year Data: National Center for Education Statistics


    Nearly every state across the country has seen progress since 2010-2011. Between school years 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, the District of Columbia made the greatest amount of progress in the Nation, improving its graduation rates by seven percentage points. In 2010, the District of Columbia received support through Race to the Top – the Obama Administration’s signature education reform initiative. These reforms helped make important strides in implementing college- and career-ready standards, improving teacher and principal effectiveness, and in turning around some of the District’s lowest-performing schools. The District of Columbia is also a national leader in providing high-quality preschool, and leads the nation in the share of its youngest learners with access to free and publicly available early education.


    For further details on state-by-state graduation rates please click HERE.

    Building on Historic Progress to Help Students Succeed

    In addition to reaching record graduation rates, the country has made real progress to increase educational opportunity and help students succeed since President Obama took office. Key signs of progress include:

    Investing in Early Education:  In 2013, President Obama put forth his bold Preschool for All proposal to establish a federal-state partnership that would provide high-quality preschool for all four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. After the President’s call, many states took action and today, 46 states and the District of Columbia invest in preschool programs. From 2009 to 2015, states enrolled 48,000 additional four-year-olds in preschool through their own investments.The Obama Administration has also invested an additional $4 billion in Head Start, the largest federal early childhood initiative, and $1.75 billion in Preschool Development Grants andRace to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants, leading to hundreds of thousands more children having access to high-quality preschool across the country.

    Reforming and Improving America’s Schools: The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program spurred systemic reforms, incentivizing states to adopt college and career-ready standards for teaching and learning and to undertake meaningful change across their public education systems. The $4 billion competitive grant program served 22 million students in 18 states and Washington D.C. -- nearly half of all students in the country. Through the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program, the Administration has also invested over $7 billion to transform America’s lowest performing schools. These efforts helped contribute to a decline in dropout rates, and over the last decade, dropout rates have been cut dramatically for Latino and African American students, while the number of high schools where fewer than six in ten students graduate on time has been cut by more than 40 percent.

    Connecting America’s Classrooms: Launched in 2013, the President’s ConnectED initiative set a goal of connecting 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband by 2018; issued a call to action on the private sector and other stakeholders to develop quality, low-cost digital devices and content for teachers and students; and increased investments in professional development for teachers and school leaders so they can lead the transition to digital learning. Today, students and teachers across the country are realizing the benefits of personalized, digital learning; thousands of districts have taken steps to make their schools “Future Ready,” 20 million more students have gained access to high-speed broadband in their classrooms, and millions of students in all 50 states are leveraging new resources that support ConnectED, such as Open eBooks.

    Spurring Innovation in Education: The Obama Administration has invested in new efforts to develop, test, refine, and scale a new set of solutions to close achievement gaps in America’s public schools. By investing more than $1.3 billion in nearly 160 projects, the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) has reached more than two million students across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Projects undergo rigorous evaluation and expand the knowledge base to enable educators across the country to use a new set of strategies and solutions that will help students make even greater progress in the years ahead.  Last year, the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) codified the new Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program as a successor to i3. The Obama Administration has also invested almost $350 million in replicating high quality charter schools, serving predominantly low-income students.

    Redesigning America’s High Schools: President Obama recognizes that we must do more to engage, prepare, and inspire college and career-ready students, and align high school learning to the experiences and opportunities that matter in young people’s lives. That is why in the President’s 2013 State of the Union address, he laid out a new vision for America’s high schools, proposing funding to scale-up innovative high school models and partnerships with colleges and employers so that all students graduate better equipped for the demands of the innovation economy. To build on this work the White House has hosted two annual summits on Next Generation High Schools in 2015 and 2016, announcing $375 million in private and public sector commitments and commitments from states and school districts estimated to impact more than 600,000 students to advance Next Generation High Schools.

    Developing and Supporting Great Teachers and Leaders: The Obama Administration’s investments during the Great Recession saved and created an estimated 400,000 jobs, mostly directly in education.  The Administration has also invested over $3.5 billion in competitive grant programs since 2009 to prepare, develop, support and retain outstanding educators across America’s urban and rural schools -- through programs such as the School Leadership Program,Supporting Effective Educator DevelopmentTeacher Incentive FundTeacher Quality Partnership and Transition to Teaching.

    Promoting Excellence in STEM and Computer Science for All: America is on track to meet President Obama’s goal of preparing 100,000 excellent STEM teachers by 2021; 100,000 engineers are graduating yearly from American universities for the first time; and states and cities across the country are answering the President’s call to ensure that all of America’s students have the opportunity to learn computer science in their schools.  31 states now count computer science classes toward their high school graduation requirements, and a new computer science Advanced Placement (AP) course has launched in more than 2,000 classrooms.

    Making Historic Investments in Financial Aid: President Obama has doubled investments in financial aid, increasing the maximum Pell Grant by over $1,000 and establishing the American Opportunity Tax Credit to provide up to $10,000 in tax credits to support higher education over four years.  More than two million additional students have received college assistance each year through the Pell Grant over the course of the Obama Administration. A recent report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers suggests that the Obama Administration’s increase in the average Pell Award between 2008-2009 and 2014-2015 will lead to an additional $20 billion in aggregate earnings, a nearly 2:1 return on the investment.

    Making College More Affordable: The Department of Education recently announced this year’sFree Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)— available October 1 for the first time, three months earlier than the traditional January 1 date—so that more students can access the historic investment in financial aid and better information when they need it. About one millionstudents submitted their FAFSA applications within the first ten days since the launch of the application, outpacing recent years. In addition, income-based repayment plans like the President’s “Pay as You Earn” (PAYE) plan cap monthly student loan payments at as little as 10 percent of income, so that more borrowers can successfully manage their student loans. About 5.3 million Direct Loan borrowers have taken advantage of repayment options like the President’s PAYE plan, up from 700,000 in 2011.

    Promoting College Success: The College Scorecard—which was announced by the President in 2015—provides the clearest, most accessible, and most reliable national data on cost, graduation rates, debt, and post-college earnings. Organizations—like Google, College Board, and the Common Application —are building the College Scorecard tool and data into their products in order to ensure that students and families have the best information available at critical decision-making-periods. The College Scorecard data on college costs, graduation rates, and earnings will be clearly featured in the hundreds of millions of Google searches related to colleges and universities taking place in the U.S. each year. Together with the earlier availability of the FAFSA, the College Scorecard ensures that students and families have the best information available to choose a good-value school. Because students and families can learn about their financial aid eligibility within a few days of completing the FAFSA, they will have better information to compare costs and student outcomes available on the Scorecard when they are searching for and applying to schools. Next year, the FAFSA will direct students to the College Scorecard, so that students will have immediate access to the information they need to make their most consequential investment to date—by weighing their personalized financial aid estimates against a school’s student outcomes, comparing schools, and considering the full scope of their college options.

    Making Community College Free for Hard-working Students: During his 2015 State of the Union, President Obama unveiled America’s College Promise, a plan that creates and strengthens partnerships to make two years of community college free for responsible students, letting students earn the first half of a college degree and skills needed in the workforce atno cost. The President’s proposal would also support four-year Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions in providing students with up to two years of college at zero or significantly reduced tuition. If all states participate, an estimated nine million students could benefit. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. Since the President announced America’s College Promise, at least 36 free community college programs have launched in states, cities and community colleges throughout the country. Together, these new programs alone have added more than $150 million in new investments in community colleges to serve 180,000 students. The number of free community college programs across the country is expected to grow, with $100 million for America’s Promise Grants, the tuition-free dual enrollment pilot for 10,000 students, and resources like the America’s College Promise Playbook.


  • The Seven Year Switch
  • As Veronique Zimmerman-Brown, Ph.D., drives through the Black Belt, she can tell easily that jobs have been hard to come by and that the region’s poverty rate stands at close to 30 percent. “You can see historical deficiencies in terms of finance and economics,” says Zimmerman-Brown, a UAB School of Education program director and alumna. “A lot of businesses are boarded up, so you know the money isn’t flowing, and the tax revenue isn’t there.”

    Another statistic accompanies those gaps and empty spaces: In the Black Belt—the counties stretching through central Alabama from Mississippi to Georgia—nearly a quarter of adults age 25 and over, on average, have never earned a high school diploma.

    For Zimmerman-Brown and Lawrence Tyson, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB School of Education Counselor Education Program, that figure presents an opportunity to turn things around—and they’re not starting small. The two are leading the GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) Alabama initiative, which is providing support to 9,300 students, along with their parents and guardians, in 21 Black Belt school districts from seventh and eighth grade through their first year in college.

    College-Ready Kids

    GEAR UP is a U.S. Department of Education program awarding multiyear grants that encourage schools, communities, and states to coordinate services to increase the numbers of low-income students enrolling and succeeding in higher education. The UAB School of Education won a GEAR UP grant in 2014 that includes $24.5 million plus another $24.5 million in matching funds from Alabama colleges, community foundations, corporate partners, government agencies, and participating school systems.

    GEAR UP Alabama (GUA) is providing the seventh and eighth graders with a spectrum of services for up to seven years: an enhanced educational curriculum, tutoring, mentoring, and academic enrichment camps, among other programs. Teachers and school administrators also receive professional development and mentoring. All of it is designed to make youngsters college ready—and to bring about lasting changes in the classroom.

    The multiyear, multilayered approach “has the potential to develop sustainability of programs aimed at increasing the teachers’ ability to create and present a rigorous curriculum,” says Tyson, GUA’s principal investigator. Enhancing the level of learning is a major goal. The teacher training, for example, is intended to benefit GUA students along with those who follow them after the program ends.

    Listening and Writing

    To assess the state of education in the Black Belt, GUA collected baseline data for participating middle schools through a partnership with the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a nonprofit, nonpartisan group seeking to improve public education. Zimmerman-Brown says they interviewed students, teachers, administrators, and others to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each school’s academic program.

    “At every point, we try to get input from the superintendent, parents, and teachers,” Zimmerman-Brown says. “We include their comments in our action items to help them to understand that we’re listening.” Initial weaknesses included low percentages of teachers in math, English/language arts, and science with college degrees in those fields; a need for coursework reflecting the increased expectations of higher educational standards; and a lack of accelerated learning to help students graduate on time and score well on assessments for college and career readiness.

    As for strengths, the review found that most teachers say they are expected to apply to the classroom what they learn in their training programs—a core component of GUA. Tyson says SREB consultants will be on hand for GUA’s duration, providing ongoing professional development to enhance the curriculum in areas identified by teachers and administrators.

    GUA also is collaborating with Kaplan K-12 Learning Services to help schools increase academic rigor in math and science. As part of the effort, Kaplan has supplied two sets of supplemental texts in math and literacy for students and teachers to use.

    Tynisa Williams, an eighth-grade math teacher at Montgomery’s Brewbaker Middle School, says the Kaplan books contain information like textbooks but also function as workbooks. “The kids love them,” says Williams. “They like being able to see an example [of a math problem] and work it out right there. They say it’s so much easier when they can write in their books.”

    Money Matters

    Stronger academics aren’t the only key to college for Black Belt children. GUA is helping students and their parents determine how to pay for college long before senior year. For example, GUA and the Alabama Department of Education are collaborating on workshops to teach parents and guardians how to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms needed to obtain federal money for college.

    “Starting early is paramount because there’s not a history of students being directly engaged in completing that application,” Tyson says. “We want to increase the number of students completing FAFSA every year so that when they get to be juniors and seniors, they’ll be aware that it’s something they’re supposed to do.” Introducing families to FAFSA now also could encourage applications from the students’ older siblings.

    GUA’s efforts in this area got a boost recently when Alabama’s community college system pledged tuition waivers for GUA students who qualify for admission. Tyson says GUA has been in talks with Alabama’s four-year colleges and universities about securing similar tuition waivers.

    Moreover, the community college system also has pledged tuition waivers for GUA parents who want to return to school to earn degrees. At GUA’s Parents’ Scholar Night events in different counties, parents can learn more about the waivers, GED preparation, and other details needed for enrollment.

    The business community is on board as well. Regions Bank, for instance, has teamed up with Stephanie Yates, Ph.D., the Regions Institute for Financial Education Endowed Professor in the UAB Collat School of Business, to teach financial literacy seminars for GUA parents and guardians.

    All of these partnerships are crucial for GUA’s success—and the Black Belt’s future—Tyson says. “High schools whose graduates go on to a post-high school education, whether that is in the military or a career or college, produce inpiduals who will come back into the community and make it stronger,” says Tyson. “So community partnerships with education are a must. They cannot be separate.”

    Healthy Body, Healthy Future

    It’s no surprise that students perform better academically when they feel good. So GUA is working with organizations such as the Alabama Health Action Coalition to lead family health and nutrition seminars, complete with tips on preparing wholesome meals. “We see cases of children with diabetes and obesity, and if they’re sluggish, then they’re not alert and not learning,” Zimmerman-Brown says. The health focus also benefits parents and guardians, helping them to “be present for their children,” she adds.

    Eager to Learn

    Many GUA students have already glimpsed the potential future that awaits them. Regions and other businesses have held job-shadowing events, letting students visit their workplaces and learn about different careers. And this summer, more than 1,500 students attended academic enrichment campus at colleges around the region. At UAB, a hundred of those children participated in a financial literacy camp led by Yates.

    Some GUA middle-schoolers have previewed college life through campus tours. Last January, a group from Brewbaker Middle visited Tuskegee University, and they came home excited, Williams says.

    “Now the kids are talking about college and what they want to do when they grow up,” she says. Even some students who didn’t care about finishing school are saying they want to go to college, she adds. “To make that change in a child’s life is extraordinary.”

“On behalf of the Alabama Community College System, I would like to congratulate you and the University of Alabama at Birmingham on being a recipient of the 2014 Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness of Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant”

Dr. Mark Heinrich,  Chancellor, Alabama Community College System

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