The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a competitive grant program of the U.S. Department of Education that increases the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education by providing states and local community-education partnerships six-to-seven year grants to offer support services to high-poverty, middle and high schools.
In the fall of 2014, the University of Alabama at Birmingham was awarded the state grant, thus GEAR UP Alabama (GUA) was born.
Between 2014 and 2021, GUA serviced nearly 9,300 students in 42 schools across 21 school systems throughout the Black Belt Region.
Building the Foundation
The GEAR UP Alabama grant was awarded on October 1, 2014. By January 2015, the grant had its first two full-time team members: Dr. Veronique Zimmerman Brown (Project Director) and Mrs.Vivian Pettus (Business Officer). Dr. Larry Tyson was the Principal Investigator, which was a part-time position.
The task seemed overwhelming, but the team was excited to do this necessary work. They brought on nearly 90 part-time educators to help with the day-to-day work in the communities. This included a team of six Regional Coordinators. RCs had the help of site Facilitators on the ground in each county and Team Leaders, who assisted Site Facilitators.
to dig in!
To start the work, the team spent time listening to the communities. Staff went into every school and conducted extensive research to know how they could maximize the schools’ strengths and support their needs.
During the HOPE years, we focused on letting the state of Alabama and the individual communities we served know
we were here. We shared what we hoped to accomplish and our desire to accomplish those goals together.
GEAR UP Alabama Kick-Off Week
We had the first GEAR UP Alabama Kick-Off week of events. These events typically happened in the third week of September each fall. Every school got to plan its own week of activities.
GUA + SREB
We hosted Technical Assistance Visits (TAVs) at every middle and high school in the grant, nearly 75 schools total. The Southern Regional Education Board led the initiative.
Each school put together a TAV Team, which consisted of local business people, local leaders, and educators from the community who were not teachers at the particular school we were observing. We did class observations and held 4 focus groups: students, parents, ‘community leaders, and faculty/staff. We also did one-on-one interviews with the principals and guidance counselors to round the data collection.
Engaging Students, Teachers, and Community
During this time, GUA’s leadership team was restructured. Dr. Tonya Perry was brought on as the Program Investigator, and Dr. Samantha Briggs was brought ‘on as the Program Director. We also expanded our Birmingham-based team to include Ashton Ray as our Communications Intern, Dr. Jackie Stennis as Parent Liason, Migdawlaw Yisrael as an Administrative Associate, and ReShanda White as Program Manager.
Although adjusting to our new internal team structure came with some challenges, we continued to build relationships with the students, teachers, and their families. Our bonds with the students deepened, and we saw the trust grow tremendously. We were becoming family.
Our programming was also blossoming. We provided more college tours and started Dual Enrollment for students in their 10th-grade year, including our ‘own EDU 100 course taught by Dr. Stennis, Dr. Prentiss Colman, and other GUA affiliates that prepared students for their online dual enrollment classes.
“l am thankful for the GEAR UP Alabama program who enabled me to take dual enrollment classes for FREE! They were a tremendous help and saved me a lot of money. | am forever grateful.”
Aliceville High School Class of 2020 Currently attends Mississippi University for Women
In our mini-camps, we brought 10th-grade students to the UAB campus to experience a 36-hour day in the life of a college student. Students stayed overnight in the dorms on campus, ate at on-campus restaurants, and even went to class!
Black-Belt Friday Bus Tours
GUA Black Belt Friday Bus Tours were where we took UAB affiliates-students, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni-to Alabama’s Black Belt to volunteer in a school.
Our partners, “Let Us Make Man” out of Atlanta, facilitated a “Rolling Classroom” where they taught participants the history of the town we visited while on the bus.
Once we made it to the school, we held an assembly where one of our partners would give a motivational speech, and the school would give a presentation. The students got to decide what their presentation looked like, and they often included performances from their band, dancers, choirs, etc. Students then returned to their classrooms, where we hosted mentoring activities.
“Thanks to the advice and suggestions given to me by the mentors on that day, now know what I have to do to prepare for my future.”
From “GEAR UP Alabama ‘Gears Up’ Lanier Posts” by Jaliyah Stokes
We hosted our first Future Proof Conference in February 2018 at Alabama State University in Montgomery. Students enjoyed spending time on the college campus and hearing from some of our partners who facilitated activities around preparing for the next chapter of their lives. The conference was so well received that we were requested to host additional conferences at UAB and Auburn University Montgomery.
Pursuing College and Career...
Once our students reached high school, we expanded the GUA team and brought on graduation coaches to better ensure their transition post-high school. The coaches included Ashton Ray, Martez Files, Stephanie Rudolph, and Rohit Koratkar. During this time, we also brought on Jamie Lewis as our Business Officer.
In 2020 when the world came to a screeching halt, we were challenged in ways none of us could have imagined. We sprung into action helping students and their families manage the transition from in-person learning to virtual learning.
Once we realized this pandemic wasn’t a short-term inconvenience, we shifted our focus to our students’ mental and emotional well-being. They were robbed of some of the most important moments, like prom, graduation, and the full college experience. These realities were difficult because we knew they would never get these opportunities back.
We leveraged technology and social media to stay in communication with the students. Our goal was to give them space to express themselves and grieve their ideas about their immediate futures-that graduations likely wouldn’t look the same, they may not be able to move onto their college campus,
In addition to bringing on graduation coaches, we also started GUA Clubs on the campuses of several colleges. Our goal was to create an affiliation for the students once they arrived to school. The clubs also had student ambassadors, who were paid stipends for their roles.
WE MADE IT!
‘The COVID-19 Pandemic definitely disrupted our final stretch with our students. Nevertheless, we are so proud of the work we’ve done. We empowered students to dream bigger and see themselves beyond ‘heir current circumstances. We saw students graduate high school and become first-generation college students. We saw parents go to school and obtain degrees as well.
We built strong relationships with community partners, without whom we could have never done this work.