LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas has landed a seven-year, $8.9 million grant to ensure students in low-income districts not only are aware of the educational opportunities available to them, but that they improve their grades, graduate from high school and enroll in college.
The grant from the U.S. Department of Education will fund KU’s GEAR UP, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Education, which will work with 1,600 middle school students in four schools in the Kansas City, Kan., district. The award is a continuation of the program, which has been operated by KU’s Institute for Education and Public Service for 12 years. GEAR UP will work with sixth- and seventh-grade students at Eisenhower, Argentine, Rosedale and Arrowhead middle schools. Schools in the program have at least 50 percent of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches.
“We’ll follow these co-horts of students until their first year of college, wherever that may be,” said Ngondi Kamatuka, director of Educational Opportunity Programs. “We believe in empowering the students, the parents and the teachers.”
The program seeks to help students improve their grade-point averages, ensure that 65 percent of participants take advanced placement courses and make sure at least 65 percent complete requirements for graduation and enroll in a postsecondary institution. The program is a communitywide effort. Faculty members volunteer time to work in the schools, KU students serve as mentors and tutors, and program directors have formed partnerships with numerous community organizations. Many of the specific measures are based on the research and expertise of KU’s Center for Research on Learning.
New to the program this year is a financial literacy component. Students are partnering with Kansas City, Kan., banks to establish early savings accounts to help pay for college, and program staff are providing financial education to show the value of saving. Barbara Phipps, associate professor of curriculum and teaching, is directing the financial literacy component in collaboration with William Elliott, assistant professor in KU’s School of Social Welfare.
"We are delighted to have the opportunity to work with Kansas City, Kan., youth in financial literacy,” Phipps said. “Studies show that economically disadvantaged students who have an opportunity to manage some of their own finances through banking and financial education are more likely to attend and graduate from college."
GEAR UP staff in Kansas City, Kan., and district teachers work with students and parents throughout the year in course selection, advising, college preparatory tests and other efforts in the schools. They also extend their work outside of the classroom. Students in the program visit the KU campus to learn more about higher education.
“We want them to know from an early age that they can go to the University of Kansas or anywhere else,” Kamatuka said. “They shouldn’t think this is an academy they can’t attend. We want to make sure they have access to higher education and know it.”
The program also helps students attend cultural events such as Kansas City Royals games or live arts performances at KU’s Lied Center that they often have never experienced because of affordability. Once students reach college, the program helps make them aware of scholarships, services and opportunities available on campus. So far, KU’s GEAR UP program has helped students secure more than $5 million in scholarships.
The Institute for Education and Public Service, which has educational programs in all 105 Kansas counties, will make annual performance reports to the Department of Education. KU has the highest graduation and college completion rates of any university with GEAR UP funding in the nation.
“I want to make sure every child has access to high quality and higher education,” Kamatuka said. “It’s a moral obligation to the state and to the nation. This program will help us work toward that goal.”