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While schools around the world are closed and plans for the fall semester are still uncertain in some districts, rising ninth graders across the Phoenix metro area are still being reached with critical tutoring and college readiness resources, thanks to Arizona State University students who work with the GEAR UP program.
Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness is a federally funded program that helps local K–12 schools, higher education institutions, state agencies and community organizations increase college readiness, raise graduation rates and educate students and families about postsecondary options, preparation and financing.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to school closures, GEAR UP served about 1,400 eighth graders in person across six schools. The program launched in 2018 and is following the same cohort of students through high school and one year after graduation. The students started as seventh graders at Kino Junior High, Gililland Middle School, Desert Horizon Elementary, P.H. Gonzalez Elementary, Don Mensendick School and Maryland School.
During the school year, students get individualized help inside and outside the classroom from ASU students who mentor and seek to inspire them. Since schools have been closed, ASU students’ work has evolved into virtual live tutoring and one-on-one mentoring, virtual promotion-ceremony planning, and creation of instruction videos that cover language arts and math concepts, as well as social and emotional learning and tips for academic success.
Jasmine Dean , ASU GEAR UP coordinator senior, focuses on supporting the West Valley programs for GEAR UP. She said student workers from ASU are making it possible for GEAR UP to keep serving next year’s ninth graders during this time.
“Our students are transitioning to high school next year. We want to let them know that GEAR UP will still be with them too,” she said. “We’re not forgetting about them. We’re going to continue to be with them for the next five years to help them progress into that person that they want to be and prepare them for college.”
Dean said that the partner school districts have been supportive in distributing GEAR UP materials and helping program staff keep in touch with families. Staff has been able to offer resources through phone calls, Google Drive tools, YouTube playlists and more.
Jenna Arroyo, 14, just celebrated her eighth grade graduation from Maryland Elementary and is enrolled in Washington High School for next year. Jenna said she has been keeping in touch with her GEAR UP tools virtually through Zoom calls and email to continue the resources she uses in mentorship and coursework. She was grateful to “still have the same opportunities as they would with everything happening around us.”
She said she was initially inspired to participate because she’s focused on her future.
“My favorite parts about GEAR UP are the opportunities to be involved with the programs and having assistance every step of the way. Without the program, I wouldn’t know about all these amazing opportunities that have helped me create a strong future,” she said.
D.D. Carr, assistant principal at Maryland Elementary School, said that she has enjoyed seeing the impact GEAR UP has had on the 84 eighth grade participants at her school and emphasizes that the relationship building is what helps students overcome obstacles.
“I love the fact that our students will have relationships not just with their school but with this connected group of professionals. The GEAR UP team listen and help students identify and work toward the goals they want to accomplish,” Carr said.
P.H. Gonzales Elementary School Principal Cindy Mills said that since GEAR UP came to her campus, “it has been a true blessing.” Although GEAR UP will follow the students to ninth grade and away from the school next year, Mills said the guest speakers, weekly lessons and mentoring for the 150-plus eighth graders at P.H. Gonzalez was invaluable for the students.
“The opportunities our students were given by ASU … I feel that the students relate well to the mentors and that our campus is a better place due to the impact ASU GEAR UP has had,” she said.
“We will miss having them on campus but feel a kind of reassurance that our students are in good hands for the next four years, as GEAR UP will continue to support them.”
Tyler Robinson, who just graduated with his degree in filmmaking practices from ASU, was a mentor and tutor in language arts and social studies at P.H. Gonzales, Maryland and Mensendick. He said he loved his job because every day was different.
During the school closures, he volunteered to hand out school laptops to students and offered time slots to virtually meet up with his students. He said it was always good to hear from them to make sure that they were doing well and to share some encouraging words.
“This is a unique and difficult situation depending on your circumstances, but you’ve got to make the best of it,” he said.
Robinson and his students are both going through a big transition and promotion, from college and eighth grade respectively. But he emphasizes to his students that they should all stay positive and productive.
“This time is going to pass. Right now it may feel like the days are slow and you’re staring at the clock. … but just know that everybody at your school, your friends, your family — we’re going through this together even though we're isolated.”
Francisco Gutierrez is a junior at ASU studying civil engineering and Spanish. He has been a GEAR UP math tutor for several months working at Gilliland and Kino. He was introduced to GEAR UP through his high school in the border town of San Luis, Arizona. It wasn’t available for his grade level, but he could see what it offered. He said he benefited from having the guidance of his older sister to help guide him through high school, and he’s happy to be someone who now helps guide younger students.
“It feels good to be there for the students in case they need anything and don’t have the support from somewhere else,” Gutierrez said. “I can guide them if they’re having a hard time and help them out.”
He enjoyed bonding with the students and said though it was hard to not see them through their eighth grade promotion, he knows they have been set up for success. His message for the students is to make the most of the time they have right now.
“You guys made it all (the way) through middle school. You guys are going on to high school. It’s a new stage in your generation,” he said. “This won’t last forever. Therefore we should try to take advantage of this time we have right now to learn new stuff, to try to make new friends online or try to spend time with family.”
Sylvia Symonds, associate vice president of outreach for ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services, said that ASU is proud of its role in GEAR UP and how ASU students adapted the resource for this year’s eighth graders.
“This program supports more than 1,000 families in Arizona every year by providing academic support and resources that open up college-going pathways for students,” Symonds said.
“While families are social distancing at home, ASU students have been so adaptive and creative in continuing to reach GEAR UP students. Sun Devils are making higher education possible and more accessible for more Arizona students.”
For rising first-year high school student Jenna, she has felt the impact on her education and looks forward to what’s next.
“GEAR UP means a lot to me as a student, because as a 14-year-old, high school and college can be intimidating, but they help us through it,” she said.
“I have been working with GEAR UP for the past two years, and the program is amazing. It helped me through so much, and I’m so glad to be a part of it.”