By Tess Malijenovsky
Robert Smalls and Whale Branch middle schools were awarded more than $1 million in grant funds to help students from low-income families make college more than just a dream. Beginning in seventh grade, the 230 students from both schools will be apart of the GEAR UP! Program, which will follow the students into high school and then through their freshman year of college.
The U.S. Department of Education and S.C. GEAR UP! will provide each middle school $82,000 per year for six years, which will fund one-on-one “graduation” coaching. Coaches will work with the students by discussing career goals, classwork and parental support, via tutoring, summer programs, college visits and preparation for college entrance exams like the SAT.
“Students benefit from adult encouragement and mentoring as they stretch toward college,” said Beaufort County Superintendent Valerie Truesdale. “Life happens, and students can get off track academically. This coach could be in the home asking, ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘What can we do?’ ”
Qualifying for this grant meant that at least three-fourths of the students at Robert Smalls and Whale Branch middle schools were at or below the poverty line, and more than 30 percent scored below basic in English and math in standardized testing. Also, at least half of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
The organization has worked with 17 schools since 2005. About 83 percent of the students involved in the program graduated last spring compared to the 51 percent of students from those 17 schools that usually go to college, according to Sjanna Coriarty, the S.C. GEAR UP! research and evaluation manager at the Commission on Higher Education.
“It really works,” said Coriarty. “I think when you’re dealing with students in a poverty area, a lot of times they don’t have the belief that they really can go to college. This is someone there to instill in them that belief and expectation. To say, ‘Yes you can and here’s how.’ ”
Robert Smalls Principal Denise Smith said many of her seventh-graders would be the first in their families to graduate from college, and she was enthusiastic about the opportunity.
“When you have a formalized program and someone who is monitoring the data, it helps it to become a reality,” Smith said.
By Tess Malijenovsky