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ASU, educational attainment program celebrate impact on Arizona’s class of 2024

GEAR UP continued to support students, teachers, parents and community partners throughout the pandemic

masked students in a socially distanced classroom
March 31, 2021

The barriers to educational equity have been exacerbated by COVID-19, but a group of educators gathered virtually in February to share resources and reaffirm their dedication to moving the needle on educational access.

ASU President Michael Crow addressed participants at the 2021 National Council for Community and Education Partnerships at their GEAR UP Capacity Building Workshop on Feb. 8. ASU earned a $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to bring GEAR UP to Arizona students.

In his remarks to more than 1,000 educators who are working on increasing postsecondary access and success for first-generation and low-income students, Crow emphasized that education is an essential service, even in a pandemic, and that programs such as GEAR UP are crucial interventions in bringing educational access to students. 

“It’s an honor to … have an opportunity to be with the front line of social change, the front line of building our democracy, the front line of empowering what it actually means to live in a free society with egalitarian access,” said Crow. 

Crow said that social mobility hasn’t advanced sufficiently in the last 50 years and that people who are in the bottom quarter of family incomes still have less than a 10% chance of graduating from college. He emphasized that creating more pathways to education is crucial. 

For the more than 3,000 Arizona ninth graders affected by the federally funded GEAR UP, the program has continued to provide crucial tutoring, mentorship and coaching throughout the school closures of 2020, when the GEAR UP cohort was transitioning to high school. The program has followed the same students since seventh grade and will follow them through one year after high school. 

GEAR UP’s goals are to provide academic support and intervention by way of tutoring and mentoring, increasing college readiness, raising graduation rates and educating students and families about postsecondary options, preparation and financing. Nationally, GEAR UP serves more than 580,000 low-income, minority and disadvantaged students in 42 states, three U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. 

Though the medium has been different, the message has been the same this year. This past fall, high schools even celebrated college and career readiness, mentorship and student success in a series of virtual events for National GEAR UP Week. Celebrations for the week, Sept. 21-25, included citywide proclamations from the mayors of Tempe, Tolleson, Glendale and Mesa, as well as social media prompts for students to think about and share about their heroes, their career and college goals, why education is important to them and more. 

Nathaly Gonzalez Peralta, a 15-year-old freshman at Tempe High School, said she was inspired to celebrate GEAR UP after she heard about it from her English teacher. 

“Participating in GEAR UP was pretty fun because you tell a different story about yourself and tell about your future life,” she said. 

During the school year, GEAR UP students receive individualized tutoring, training and help inside and outside the classroom from ASU students and staff who mentored them. When COVID-19 necessitated school closures, GEAR UP staff assisted in distributing laptops, hosted virtual live tutoring and one-on-one mentoring, planned virtual graduation ceremonies and hosted virtual meetups. 

ASU graduate student in higher and postsecondary education Rosalee Shoulders is a GEAR UP educational outreach specialist at Tempe High School. She said it was fun to see her students and educators participate in GEAR UP week on social media because it highlighted how important these resources are during a tumultuous year. 

“Reading their stories and seeing their engagement with GEAR UP week gives me hope that students have a great support system to succeed with the help of the GEAR UP program,” Shoulders said. 

Political science and family and human development major RaNiyah Taylor said the students she works with in Mesa participated in GEAR UP week on social media. In her role as an academic tutor and success coach at Westwood High School, she has seen firsthand the excitement on students’ faces this semester to have resources and connections.

“I think GEAR UP will have a huge impact on these students. Even just from being in the middle schools, I could see the impact I made on students and their curiosity in college,” Taylor said. “In high school, it will be such a game changer for these students to have a resource like GEAR UP. This program is certainly something I wish was available to me when I was in high school.”

Tempe High School Assistant Principal for Academics Suzanne Pachuta said the school is thrilled to have GEAR UP on campus starting this year to develop innovative ways to support student success. Pachuta said she thinks the impact will be seen all across the school community because the experiences are integrative across subjects and experiences. 

“I can see GEAR UP having a deep impact on our 2024 cohort and our entire school for years to come. The systems they are helping us to develop, the creative problem-solving and work through the logistics of getting support up and running are all things I can see continuing to support student learning and needs,” Pachuta said. 

The GEAR UP cohort students in Arizona started as seventh graders at Kino Junior High School, Gililland Middle School, Desert Horizon Elementary School, Porfirio H. Gonzales Elementary School, Don Mensendick School and Maryland School. Districts participating in the GEAR UP grant include Tempe Elementary, Tempe Union, Mesa Public Schools, Pendergast Elementary, Tolleson Elementary, Tolleson Union, Glendale Elementary, Washington Elementary and Glendale Union. Community partners include the Be A Leader Foundation, APS, Glendale Community College, the Arizona College Access Network, MidFirst Bank, Mesa Counts on College, Tempe College Connect and many others who are committed to improving postsecondary outcomes for Arizona students and families. Many of these partners also contribute to the Achieve60AZ goal that by 2030 60% of Arizona adults will hold a postsecondary credential or degree. 

Ricardo Villa-Sanchez, a senior coordinator for GEAR UP, works with Westwood High School and Tempe High School. Other participating high schools are Glendale High School, Tolleson High School and Washington High School. He also worked as a GEAR UP tutor as an undergraduate at ASU  and was inspired to continue working with the program because it provides support not just to students but to entire communities. 

“Support programming should not be limited to just the classroom; instead, it should weave into the families and communities of our students,” he said. “I have continued to work with GEAR UP as its core values and mission align with my own personal beliefs regarding student and community success."

ASU Associate Vice President for Outreach Sylvia Symonds said that ASU is proud to be a part of such a unique and effective program that both moves the needle for educational attainment rates and impacts so many individual families’ lives.

“Because GEAR UP follows the same cohort of students through their secondary education, we can offer significant support that will change students’ and families’ lives,” said Symonds. “We celebrate the impact of GEAR UP year-round, and we’re very proud of how much support it has provided to students in 2020.”