By Chloe Morrison
A number of recent high school graduates who were part of Walker/Bradley County GEAR UP said without the program they may not have found their way to college.
"I think it is a pretty good program," said Johnny Mikel, who graduated from Ridgeland High School in Walker County in June. "It showed me that anybody can go to college (whether) they have a weak income or a strong income."
Mr. Mikel will attend Georgia Highlands College in Rome, Ga., this fall, he said.
GEAR UP stands for gaining early awareness and readiness for undergraduate programs.
The Walker/Bradley County project was one of five programs selected nationally for federal funding in 2001, and it was managed by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Center for Community Career Education.
In 2001, seventh-graders from Rossville Middle School and Lake Forest Middle School in Cleveland, Tenn., had the opportunity to join the program, said director of the program, Sandy Cole.
"The U.S. Department of Education develops different priorities based on what Congress is interested in, what the president is interested in," Ms. Cole said. "They were realizing that there were a tremendous number of kids that were slipping through the cracks. The school has to be at least 50 percent free or reduced price lunch. That is the only requirement they place on it. We are to serve the entire group of kids until they graduate high school."
Since 2001, GEAR UP officials have helped 526 students find their path to college. ACT preparation courses, visits to at least 20 colleges, team-building exercises, scholarships and assistance with college applications have all helped students chose a college and get accepted, Ms. Cole said.
The project ran on more than $2 million, and $72,000 in scholarships were given, officials said.
Scholarships were given to 25 Bradley County students and 20 Ridgeland students, based on their grade point averages and ACT scores, officials said.
Thursday at a pizza party in Chattanooga for students who received GEAR UP scholarships, Cathy Barham, site manager for Ridgeland High School, reminded scholarship recipients that they must send their first-semester grades back to GEAR UP officials before funds for the second semester are made available.
GEAR UP employees said their assistance doesn't stop when the students scatter to schools. Ms. Barham also gave each students her phone number and e-mail address for them to keep in touch.
And, smiling, she gave them a warning: "I have spies in all of your schools, and they will tell me if you miss any classes and don't eat seven servings of vegetables."
Ms. Cole said the program has improved graduation and retention rates, and preparation courses for standardized tests helped students raise their scores.
She said there was also a steady increase in the number of parents who were aware of financial aid since the program began. Teachers reported that the GEAR UP program helped students see a connection between their classroom lessons and their lives, Ms. Cole said.
Bradley Central graduate Ryan Ogle said the program "helped immensely." Mr. Ogle will attend Tusculum College in the fall, he said.
"I would have been completely lost," he said.
Team building exercises, like a ropes course in Polk County, Tenn., were fun ways to learn and prepare for higher education, Mr. Ogle said.
"Throughout the ropes courses and small team building exercises, you really learn to trust," he said. "We have never met these people before and you are placing your trust in complete strangers. That is preparing us to move into college where we are not going to know anyone."
Melanie Autry, parent of GEAR UP scholarship recipient Meg Autry, who graduated from Ridgeland, said she could see the difference the program made.
"My oldest child was not a member of GEAR UP, and she went to Kennesaw and she stayed for two nights," Mrs. Autry said. "Now she is back home. Because of (Meg's) experiences, I think she will stay (at Kennesaw State University)."
At Thursday's pizza party, many took time to give the students advice.
Former Ridgeland High School principal Ron Peck, who now is the transportation supervisor for Walker County schools, told the students it is important not to forget those who helped them get to college.
Ridgeland teacher Rob Piper said moderation is the key to success.
"I would say moderation in all things -- including moderation," he said.
Educators said they were happy to see the students starting their journey, and Mr. Piper advised that bumps in the road are expected, but don't become overwhelmed.
"I think about college, as I look back, and I think about driving across country," Mr. Piper said. "You can't leave Chattanooga and think about San Diego because it will drive you nuts. Leave Chattanooga and think about 'I'm going to get to Nashville. Now I'm going to worry about getting to Memphis.' Don't go (to college) and think about graduating. Take it one semester at a time, one quarter at a time."
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