DC schools receive grant to help more students from underserved communities go to college

The U.S. Department of Education will give Washington, DC, schools a $21 million Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant to expand programs that help middle schoolers complete high school and establish a plan for college and their future careers, The Washington Post reports. 

The six-year GEAR UP grant begins in mid-2024 and will provide programming and financial resources for 480 middle-school students in underserved communities, following them through middle and high school. Participating students will have access to workshops, college counseling and tours, and $22,000 each in scholarships. Programs will be provided in partnership with the District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP) and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. The District was one of six regions awarded the grants, which will help up to 22,000 students.  

“Through the GEAR UP grant, we will inspire college dreams in the minds of hundreds of DC middle school students furthest from opportunity and provide the coaching support they need through high school and the financial support they need after high school to make their college dreams a reality,” Christina Grant, DC’s superintendent of education, tells the Post.

Helping underserved students

The grant will go toward services for middle schoolers in Wards 7 and 8 schools, which have the highest rate of chronic absenteeism and largest population of low-income students and students living in foster care or experiencing homelessness among DC middle schools. The program will include socio-emotional support so that students are motivated to sign up for rigorous high school classes in preparation for college. 

GEAR UP’s focus on life skills training and coaching for both students and their families could also help improve attendance and make commitment to education a family effort, Gregory Spears, principal of Blow Pierce Middle School, one of the schools chosen to participate in the program, tells the Post.

Calling the program “unprecedented,” Spears adds, “We’re also thinking about what additional support will come with this grant. We’re very excited to be a part of this.”

Washington, DC, has seen high school graduation rates increase—from 71% of high school students graduating within four years during the 2019-20 academic year to 75% in 2021-22. However, research from the D.C. Policy Center finds that only 8 out of 100 ninth graders would earn a postsecondary degree in six years after graduating high school, down from 14 out of 100 before the pandemic.

The GEAR UP program’s success will be measured by how many students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), graduate high school, and enroll in a postsecondary program, according to the Department of Education. Officials also measure the percentage of students who take Algebra I before ninth grade as part of an effort to ensure they have enough time and preparation for STEM majors.

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