Valley schools celebrate GEAR UP Week 2021
Program provides tutoring and mentorship to same cohort for seven years to increase college readiness
For students who need support for college readiness, consistency is key, especially given the education disruptions of the past two years. Having the steady support of mentors, tutors and friends is exactly what 3,000 local 10th graders who participate in GEAR UP are celebrating this month.
Tolleson Union High School 10th grader Malachi Burress, who has been a GEAR UP student since his seventh-grade year at Maryland Elementary School, said that the program has already helped him a lot.
“My experience in GEAR UP has been fun. Every time I struggle they have been there to support. They are willing to work with me,” he said.
Malachi attended summer programs inspired by the program: the GEAR UP Summer Institute, a remote program, and Barrett Summer Scholars, an annual camp at Arizona State University, where he learned more about how college works. His favorite subjects are history and science, and he’s thinking about college as well as the NBA for his future. The GEAR UP community has been there for him since seventh grade and will continue providing support throughout high school and one year beyond, thanks to the $7 million grant that ASU earned from the U.S. Department of Education to bring GEAR UP to Arizona students.
“They help me out in life because they showed me what I have to do in order to get into college, and they are willing to work with me to get to college,” he said.
Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a federally funded program whose goals are to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. GEAR UP provides 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.
During National GEAR UP Week, Sept. 20–24, GEAR UP at Arizona State University will join thousands of students, parents, teachers, partners and college-access professionals from across the nation to celebrate GEAR UP’s successes and raise awareness about the positive impact of the program. ASU will host events for students and families to promote that #GearUpWorks, including scavenger hunts, mood boards and discussions around inspiration, travel, obstacles to education, career aspirations and more. Schools will earn participation points throughout the week, and the winners will be awarded the Territorial Cup, a nod to ASU’s longstanding football rivalry with the University of Arizona. Other prizes throughout the week include an Amazon Fire Tablet, an Amazon Echo Dot, an ASU college swag bag, Powerbeats headphones and a Roku streaming stick.
Tempe High School sophomore Chris Hernandez said that the GEAR UP tutors help many of his classmates in math and English and that the program helps improve his grades.
“They are really cool people!” he said. “(They) helped me pass my classes during interventions and summer school. Sometimes how they explain things is clearer than what my teachers teach in the classroom.”
James Reinhardt, Tempe High academic interventionist and special education teacher, said GEAR UP is a great fit for Tempe High for not only tutoring help but mentorship and near-peer support.
“Only being a few years removed from high school, GEAR UP tutors can relate to our kids on a level that our teachers often can’t. I am always hearing tutors tell our students about their college experiences and how what they are doing in class will help them be successful in college,” Reinhardt said. “They are able to relate to a student’s struggles in class and help them find the motivation to keep improving. A large number of Tempe High students who go to college are the first to do so in their family, so having an extra person in their lives who is familiar with what it takes to navigate college is extremely valuable.”
About 430 sophomores are affected by GEAR UP at Tempe High, and Reinhardt said that the feedback from staff and students has been amazing, especially with the resources that GEAR UP provided virtually in the past two years.
“GEAR UP tutors led over 100 virtual tutoring sessions, group and one-on-one, in multiple subjects throughout last year. These sessions proved to be very effective in helping students remediate and get extra help on topics they had missed or were struggling with,” he said. “GEAR UP was involved in the planning of the sessions and even made phone calls home to parents encouraging them to help their students attend the sessions. It was very successful and a major highlight of a tough year for our students and teachers.”
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.
At Westwood High School in Mesa, more than 900 sophomores and their parents feel supported by GEAR UP, said Katie Gardner, assistant principal over activities and freshmen.
“GEAR UP has been an amazing resource to help our students fulfill the promise that we as Mesa Public Schools are committed to: Every student is known by name, served by strength and need and graduates ready for college, career and community,” she said. “GEAR UP's mission is aligned with that. We work hand in hand with our GEAR UP partners to fulfill this promise every day!”
Gardner said that ASU’s presence gives more validity to the school’s work because GEAR UP is supporting what the school does for families. She said collaborating for student success has been very rewarding, especially when GEAR UP tutors helped students earn more than 1,000 credits that had been lost during COVID-19.
“Our GEAR UP partners jumped right into our school and have had an attitude of servant leadership that has opened the hearts of our staff. They are truly partners on our campus, and we are happy to get to work with them!” Gardner said.
Westwood sophomore Adina Turnbow, who has been a GEAR UP student since her seventh-grade year at Kino Junior High School, said that GEAR UP has provided different supplies and support systems, including gifts at Christmas. Her favorite GEAR UP memory so far was building headphones at the GEAR UP Summer Institute. Science and English language arts are her favorite subjects in school. After high school, she plans to join the military or go to college for information technology.
Adina’s mother, Carlene Palmer, said that she hopes Adina develops support, encouragement and a feeling of self-worth from the program. Palmer said that she has enjoyed the family GEAR UP activities especially so far.
“They are very supportive and encouraging to my children who are in the program. Though I do have younger children, and I wish they could participate in the activities the other children do — I am thankful they have the family activities,” she said.
GEAR UP is also an opportunity for current ASU students to learn and give back to K–12 students. Ashley O’Dell, a junior at ASU studying secondary education and English, works at Washington High School as an English tutor. She has been with GEAR UP for almost two years and said she felt a strong connection right away when she compared the resources that GEAR UP kids had to what she had access to as a kid. She saw the contrast even more starkly during school closures.
“Many students had issues having a stable internet connection or even finding technology that supported the assignments they needed to complete,” O’Dell said. “Going to school online during a pandemic is difficult, but the extra stress that the students I worked with had with technical and financial difficulties made it even harder on them. Thankfully, I was able to reach out to many of the students so they were able to have someone who looked around their own age to connect with. The conversations I had with the students were very enjoyable, and I will never forget how thankful the students felt.”
ASU medical studies sophomore Noor Al Turaihy also works for GEAR UP at Washington High School as a tutor; she also describes herself as a mentor for students and “a motivator when they need it.” She said she loves not only the friendly work environment but also the direct impact she can see from the work.
“My experience with GEAR UP has all been positive so far, because I have seen firsthand how much of an impact it makes on the students, in their academics as well as their personal attitudes,” she said.
ASU GEAR UP Executive Director Jennifer Murphy said that GEAR UP is a program that provides a direct impact on families’ lives and Arizona’s goals for higher education.
“The mentorship and inspiration that students receive through this program is so meaningful to students, to families and to school communities,” she said. “Access ASU is so honored to be able to work with schools to bring more resources to Arizona families. We see the impact every day, and we’re thrilled to celebrate it during GEAR UP Week and every week.”