Payson Schools will get a grant-funded program to provide intensive support to boost the chance students in the seventh grade will end up not only graduating, but attending college.

The district will get an additional Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant coordinator through its partnership with Eastern Arizona College (EAC).

“Unbeknownst to us,” said Payson Superintendent Greg Wyman, “EAC is starting a second cohort.”

EAC received federal funding, which means starting in 2019 a GEAR UP coordinator will provide social and academic support to all the students in the seventh-grade class. The coordinator will follow those kids all the way through high school, monitoring their progress, offering enrichment classes, spotlighting kids having academic trouble, working with parents and counseling the kids on career and academic plans.

The district already has one GEAR UP program running, through the same federally funded, EAC partnership. Jackie Wallace is the GEAR UP coordinator and the students she started with in seventh grade are now juniors at Payson High School.

The program is really modeled on a GEAR UP grant that proved wildly successful several years ago, when teacher Kristi Ford served as the GEAR UP coordinator. She followed a “cohort” of students from seventh grade through high school.

She offered extra classes like Academic Decathalon, arranged for tutoring, helped students find housing and food, worked frequently with parents and intervened with other teachers on behalf of students struggling because of personal or family problems.

Statistics showed that her cohort of students — the class of 2014 — had a sharply higher school attendance, high school graduation and college attendance rate. Payson students have generally had significantly lower college attendance and graduation rates than the state average, which made the program under Ford a stunning success.

However, the district dropped the program when it didn’t get a renewed federal grant and Ford left the district to teach in Utah.

Years later, students in that initial cohort said the GEAR UP program kept them in school, made a dramatic difference in their lives and put them on the path to college.

The district teamed up with EAC to restart the program in 2015, hiring Rim Country Middle School teacher Jackie Wallace as the GEAR UP coordinator. She has about 184 students in her cohort and has been arranging for enrichment classes and counseling them on career and college preparation.

The full impact of the revived GEAR UP program won’t become clear until the cohort graduates in May of 2020.

Wyman said EAC will hire an additional GEAR UP coordinator to start working with the Class of 2024 when they enter seventh grade. Once the students hit high school, Wallace will take over the cohort — since her current group will have graduated by then.

Wyman said the program focuses on helping students become first-generation college students as well as dealing with family and academic challenges.

“She works with the whole class,” said school board president Barbara Underwood. Of course, they target kids who need help. It’s a great program.”

“I wish we had it for every grade level, but it’s a funding issue like everything else,” said Wyman.

Arizona remains 48th in per-student funding nationally and hasn’t yet replaced the deep cuts the Legislature made during the recession.

Rural school districts generally suffer from even lower funding than the already bleak average in Arizona, due to higher poverty rates and lower property tax rates. During the recession, 70 percent of the district’s families qualified for the federal free-and-reduced school lunch program due to family income. In the past several years, only 40-50 percent of families have qualified.

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