Grants Could Boost College Attendance

Federal money would pay for counselors to boost dismal rates of college completion

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The Payson Unified School District, starting in January, will receive an influx of cash aimed at increasing the number of students who enroll in four-year colleges after graduating high school.

Eastern Arizona College applied for and received $4.1 million in federal funds, of which Payson will receive $180,000 over six years.

The money will follow this year’s seventh-graders at Rim Country Middle School as they progress through senior year in high school and hopefully graduate in 2014.

EAC was one of 39 successful applicants out of 231 that applied.

“What we hope to achieve with the grant is to significantly increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education,” said EAC’s grants project coordinator, Eldon Woodall, in a press release.

The grant will help provide one-on-one counseling, enrichment courses, summer classes and tutoring.

A full-time specialist will work with teachers to develop curriculum and with students to guide their academic and personal progress.

Counselors will also urge students to challenge themselves with difficult courses, said Superintendent Casey O’Brien. “It’s a unique grant.”

When senior year arrives, counselors will help students apply for scholarships. Also, $153,000 from the grant money will help students pay for college classes at either EAC or Dine College, which is a tribally-controlled school in Tsaile.

The program is called GEAR UP, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, and is administered by a division of the U.S. Department of Education.

While the GEAR UP grant will follow just one grade and will likely not be awarded to another grade, school officials said at a recent board meeting that the principles learned will be lasting.

Officials were pragmatically appreciative of the opportunity, but still pined for more.

“We only need six GEAR UP grants in a row,” said high school guidance counselor Don Heizer at the board meeting. “That would be in a Christmas wish list for the board and for us.”

As of March, nearly 47 percent of students in the Payson district were eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to the Arizona Department of Education. The lunch program for low-income students provides a measure of income levels.

According to the grant abstract by EAC, fewer than 10 percent of graduating seniors in the grant’s service area attended college, and only 3 percent of those students graduated from college.

Those statistics for Payson were not immediately available.

Payson is one of eight school districts in the EAC service area to receive the funds. Other districts include Miami, San Carlos and the Gila Regional School District.

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