Only 18 percent of Howard and Brainerd High School students enroll in college after graduation, compared with 51 percent of students from other high schools around Hamilton County.
To help narrow the gap, UTC's GEAR UP program -- Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs -- pairs graduate and undergraduate students with teachers from four low-income middle schools around the Chattanooga area.
"GEAR UP is a college readiness program that serves students who attend schools that traditionally do not send their students to college in very great numbers," said Dr. Hunter Huckabay, the program's director.
Starting with sixth- and seventh-graders, program employees and volunteers offer in-class tutoring, after-school programs and summer camps. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students are working now at Dalewood, East Lake Academy, Orchard Knob and the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. GEAR UP will follow the middle-schoolers to Howard, Brainerd and CGLA high schools and into their first year of college.
"It kind of changes their attitude about school," said Latoya Oliver, who teaches language arts at East Lake Academy. "It helps them look beyond the present to five years from now. They're no longer dreading school because now they have a purpose."
Stanley Young, GEAR UP coordinator for East Lake Academy, says it's the relationships teaching assistants build with students that make the most difference.
"A lot of them react to that one-on-one contact," he said. "Many of the inner-city kids don't get much of that."
The added presence in the classroom also cuts the student-teacher ratio in half, allowing teachers to focus on the kids who need extra help.
"All they need is a little bit of time," said Mark Gilbert, who helps teach seventh-grade math at East Lake Academy. "If you break it down for them, they really get it."
There are a number of benchmarks to measure students' progress, including the upcoming Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program exams, or TCAPs, which start next week.
These high-stakes tests, given in third through eighth grades, count for 15 to 25 percent of the students' overall grades and form a large part of teacher evaluations.
But for GEAR UP, the goal is more long term.
"If kids do better on the TCAPs, and then better on the end of course exams when they get to high school, they're going to be better prepared to get into and succeed in college," Huckabay said.
Thirty-five percent of 2012's Howard High graduates are enrolled in college, compared to the overall Hamilton County enrollment rate of 65 percent, said Dr. Kirk Kelly, director of testing and accountability for the Hamilton County Department of Education.
East Lake Assistant Principal Phil Iannarone hopes the students' time in GEAR UP will encourage more of them to enroll in college.
"It lets them see what college is like through the eyes of real college students and hear what their aspirations are," he said.
Contact staff writer Lindsay Burkholder at lburkhoklder@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6592.