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Thursday, August 9, 2012 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.

Jerry Large
GEAR UP program helps students look up

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

In almost all endeavors, communities and countries are strongest when they are pulling together.

I thought about that Tuesday afternoon while listening to a congressman answer questions from students in a University of Washington classroom.

This week, immediate and future achievements in space made news. Curiosity landed on Mars, and the government doled out $1.2 billion in grants to three companies that are developing spacecraft that might ferry astronauts to the international space station in a few years.

The companies couldn't do it on their own. Private success so often depends on grants, loans, subsidies and infrastructure provided by all of us.

It also requires talented people, a resource that is sometimes in shorter supply than it needs to be. The rest of us have something to do with that as well.

The congressman, Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia, introduced the bill that created GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), almost 14 years ago. The program puts more low-income students on a track toward college and prepares them to succeed there.

Fattah also is the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, which holds the national purse.

He was on the West Coast visiting the companies that got a piece of that spacecraft-development money, making a stop at a Boeing plant in Everett that morning. Boeing got the largest grants. Fattah was impressed with the technology, but GEAR UP is his baby and he said he always makes time in his travels to visit with students.

The UW was one of the first to apply for a GEAR UP grant. The UW Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity manages two large GEAR UP grants in Eastern Washington, mostly in the Yakima Valley, and in the Skagit Valley area.

After Fattah spoke, Sheila Edwards Lange, who heads the UW office, told the students her background was not so different from theirs. She was the first in her family to attend college.

GEAR UP programs start with one entire class at a middle school and work with them from sixth grade through graduation.

The students go on field trips and visits to colleges. They may get tutoring, and the GEAR UP staff works with schools on curriculum tweaks, does outreach to parents to help them understand what it takes to get ready for college, including applying and getting aid.

The grants allow each site the flexibility to fit the particular needs of each group of students.

Each grant application has to have a high school and its feeder middle school on board, a college and a community partner. The federal grant pays for half the program cost; the partnership provides the rest. Over the past academic year, there were 10 GEAR UP programs in Washington serving schools in 75 districts.

Students who've been through the program graduate from high school and from college at a higher rate than their peers, Fattah said.

Maria Quintero, who graduated from Sunnyside High School this year, told me she's going to study physics. She'll enter the University of Washington this fall with scholarships to pay her way.

"My parents grew up in Mexico, and they only had sixth-grade educations," she said.

They are smart people, she said, but without more education they have to do agricultural work.

Tenya Moravec has been the GEAR UP site coordinator in Sunnyside, Yakima County, for almost six years. She said the graduation rate for the students she works with has been 80 to 85 percent, versus 40 to 45 percent for the school historically.

She pointed to a girl across the room and told me, "She started with borderline gang affiliation, now she is ready to head off to college."

Moravec grew up in the Yakima Valley and knows firsthand how many reasons there are not to succeed. GEAR UP gives young people a way out.

Fatah said he wants to create certainty in young people at the earliest age possible that they can go to college.

A UW student who graduated from Sunnyside High School thanked Fattah for creating GEAR UP and giving her a chance.

Fattah thanked her in return. "When you are successful, you open the door to others," he said. "If you succeed, America succeeds."

That's the return we get on our investment in young people. Programs like GEAR UP help lay the down-to-Earth foundation that allows us to keep reaching for the stars.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or Twitter @jerrylarge.


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