Volume XIII | Issue 2 | Fall 2012
Hands popped up when eighth-grade students in Drain were asked how many of them were going on to education beyond high school. Photo: GEAR UP

Educating a better workforce

GEAR UP helps rural students obtain education beyond high school

Not so long ago, students could go to work in the mills directly out of high school and be making more money than their teachers in a few short years. Things are different now—in many communities, those jobs have disappeared. The mills that survived have tooled up, and desirable workers are the ones with advanced certifications and qualifications. 

It’s a new paradigm that is pushing education to the forefront of community survival. Rural areas face special challenges—the scarcity of educational resources nearby, a reluctance to send children away from home, and a lack of awareness of the necessity of post-secondary education for today’s workforce.

What works in an urban environment often doesn’t scale for rural.

“We have a chicken-and-egg situation in rural communities: In order to grow local and attract outside businesses, we need a qualified workforce, but without local jobs, it’s hard to retain workers who flee to more populated areas,” says John Amoroso, program officer for The Ford Family Foundation. “I believe the solution lies in providing opportunities and access to training beyond high school for local students, while working with businesses to come up with programs that meet their needs locally.”

That is the goal of organizations such as GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), which works with middle schools and high schools around the state to prepare students for postsecondary education. 

Focus on rural schools

Activities are concentrated in 36 rural Oregon schools in two groups. The first cohort receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education, and the second group is supported by The Ford Family Foundation. 

“One of the interesting things we discovered in our work in the rural areas is that they have higher graduation rates than urban environments,” says Stephanie Carnahan, GEAR UP’s director. “What that means for us is that it is really fertile ground. We aren’t fighting two battles — increasing the graduation rate and then getting students into post-secondary education. We can concentrate on the second piece.”

That piece is challenging enough, with students in rural areas facing significant barriers to post-secondary education. GEAR UP seeks to narrow that rural gap. “A major factor for rural communities is that they are often passed over for opportunities like GEAR UP,” Carnahan says. “What works in an urban environment often doesn’t scale for rural. We talk to rural students a lot about challenges, and we hear from them that they don’t feel prepared to go on to school because they don’t have opportunities.”

The schools participating in the program are organized into geographic clusters made up of a high school, one or more feeder middle schools and a university. Activities revolve around five primary focus areas that help increase college-going behaviors — the five “Rs” — rigor, right classes, relevance, relationships and raising awareness. The school clusters receive assistance in planning and implementing activities to address all five areas, including after-school tutoring, professional development for teachers, college campus visits and financial-aid awareness nights.

Each community adapts the available resources to fit local needs, and community engagement is a priority.  “The program looks different in each area,” Carnahan says. “We lay out the framework of the five ‘Rs’ and encourage them to do an assessment of where they are lacking and where they are strong.”

Encouraging results

The first group of students doesn’t start graduating until June 2014, but results are already encouraging. “We are changing the culture of academic performance and increasing the number of students who have an expectation of going on after high school,” Carnahan says. “We are seeing test scores increasing, and already high graduation rates are even higher.”

In Elkton, for example, 12 of 15 graduating seniors are headed for post-secondary education, all with scholarships of some kind. Of the three remaining students, two are entering the military, and one is headed on a religious mission.

“For me, the bottom line is that without opportunities or options, our youth and our communities are very limited,” Amoroso says. “We should be graduating students from our high schools who have every possible opportunity available to them. In creating these college- and career-ready students, we increase the vitality of our communities.” 

Showing their colors

in support of education

Next time you visit Sweet Home, don’t be surprised by the shop owners, teachers and random residents sporting college gear. It’s part of the community’s commitment to raising student awareness of the importance of college. 

“Many students say ‘I don’t know anyone who has gone to college — why do I need to?’” says Stephanie Carnahan, director of the GEAR UP program. “When they see people they know wearing gear from their alma maters, it really brings it home to them.”

The GEAR UP program operates differently in each community in order to meet local needs. In Yoncalla, schools are working together for the first time, with the middle school sending students to the high school once a week to work on higher-level math and help them transition to the new environment. The high school principal is “changing the culture” around post-secondary education by moving the athletic trophy case to the back of the school to make room for pictures and stories of students who have graduated and gone on to earn degrees and start careers. 

In Drain, about 80 middle and high school students visited eight college campuses across the state. Recently, 250 students, teachers, parents and community members came together to celebrate eighth-grade graduation and reinforce GEAR UP activities. When asked how many of the kids are going on to education beyond high school, a blizzard of hands shot up.

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