GEAR UP Program Succeeds In Helping Latinos Enter College

In the fall of 1999, Art Castanon and Ana Coria were part of the seventh grade class at Sycamore High School in Anaheim that began GEAR UP—Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program. Funded by a U.S. Department of Education federal grant, GEAR UP is a six-year curriculum aimed at middle schools in low-income communities to help raise expectations and ensure successful college entry.

The program, a partnership with the Anaheim School District, city of Anaheim and Los Amigos, followed the students—which originally numbered around 850—from Sycamore through Anaheim High School. Castanon and Coria were among the 450 who graduated last spring and, with 29 of their classmates, started their college career last fall at Cal State Fullerton. The group of 31 is the largest group of Anaheim High graduates to attend Fullerton in 10 years. Overall, the graduating class's postsecondary enrollment was 68 percent, higher than the state and Anaheim High rates, according to David L. Pagni, professor of mathematics and director of GEAR UP.

Among other highlights of the program's success are 41 percent of the students completed chemistry or physics; 99 percent graduated from high school. The group also completed a college-prep curriculum at a higher rate than the state rate for Latinos and the rate for Anaheim High from previous years; and 13 percent completed an advanced math class, a 30 percent increase from the previous class.

The importance of programs like GEAR UP, says Pagni, is "the attention the students get and the constant motivation to pursue post-secondary education. Also, the workshops for parents... the attention given in terms of going to college and financial aid. They don't realize that this is in their realm. It changes their aspirations and opens up insights."

One of the challenges says Patricia Alvarado, GEAR UP coordinator, was that "the school was not a very college-bound environment. In the past, a lot of students would go to community colleges, because no one told them they could do anything else. We told all the students that they could do it. It was also important to have people to look up to, like our tutors—seeing college students."

"The tutors were more than tutors," says Pagni. "They were mentors and role models, stressing the importance of doing well in school—they were our ambassadors for higher education."As a seventh grader, Coria wasn't thinking about college. She was concerned with getting help with her math homework, which she did through tutoring sessions. That eventually led to learning about the possibility of higher education.

"When I started seeing what GEAR UP was all about and got to eighth grade, I was like, 'Okay', I can do this. I can go to college."