The University of Texas-Pan American GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) project was selected to represent GEAR UP projects nationwide at an interactive webcast organized by the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 29 marking National GEAR UP Day.
The webcast was hosted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Congressman Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, who is regarded as the "father of GEAR UP." UTPA GEAR UP Director, Dr. Martha A. Cantu and approximately 25 parents representing schools from throughout the Rio Grande Valley participated through video and audio connections in the event as well as UTPA President Robert Nelsen and UTPA Vice President for Business Affairs Martin Baylor.
"It was a big honor to have been selected to represent GEAR UP at the national level. Of all of the GEAR UP projects in the nation, the Department of Education chose us and only three other projects to highlight. It was great to have an opportunity to showcase our parents and let the Department of Education know what we are doing in our schools here in South Texas. Our students are seniors and they are ready to go to college," Cantu said.
Initiated in 1998, GEAR UP is a grant program designed to increase the number of students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. UTPA's GEAR UP project, which has served a cohort of students from seventh grade through high school, is the second largest of the more than 220 GEAR UP projects nationwide. It serves more than 9,000 students in 22 schools and offers a wide range of services such as tutoring and mentoring, college field trips, training for teachers and parents, assistance in completing the FAFSA and preparing for the American College Testing program and the Texas Higher Education Assessment exams.
In a release about the event from Fattah, Duncan stressed the importance of GEAR UP readiness programs for students beginning in sixth grade as the pathway to a college education and economic opportunity.
"If you don't have that college dream, life can be very tough," Duncan said. "There's nothing more important, that's why I'm such a big fan of GEAR UP."
During the webcast, each project participating emphasized different services offered to students and parents. UTPA GEAR UP representatives highlighted the parental involvement component of its project, which has served as a model for other programs across the country.
"We keep getting asked 'how do you get so many parents involved,'" Cantu said. "We've built really meaningful relationships with our parents and they come back time after time because we have asked them to help us spread the college readiness message. We do training with them and we give them the tools that they need in English and in Spanish to spread this message in their community. Some of our volunteers have conducted training in the schools, the community centers, in their churches and we've even had some of our volunteers open their doors to have training in their homes. Whatever the parents are learning is on the students' academic calendar."
Duncan, who opened the webcast with his comments, allowed each of the four projects represented to share particulars and answer questions from him and Fattah about their projects. During her presentation, Cantu introduced Sabrina Mendoza, whose daughter attends Edinburg High School. A GEAR UP parent volunteer, Mendoza described how the Las Platicas Academy college readiness training she received to share with her daughter, other students and their parents also gave her the knowledge and confidence she needed to go back to college. She is now enrolled at South Texas College pursuing an associate's degree in social work. Her daughter, who will graduate in 2011, is interested in criminal justice and has applied to nearly 15 higher education institutions, thanks to the contacts and opportunities provided by GEAR UP, Mendoza said.
"It's a big honor to be a parent volunteer. GEAR UP helps you get so much information you need. I told him (Duncan) that it is a very effective program in our area and we are spreading the news through our platicadoras. Platica means to speak about it. We have become communicators," she said. "I am going to live with and share this (information) with everyone around me."
According to the Department of Education, 12 million students have been served by GEAR UP since it began. It serves students in 49 states, the District of Columbia and overseas American territories. The GEAR UP model has also been adopted in other countries.