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This is a guest post submitted by: Dreama Gentry, J.D.; Berea College Executive Director Externally Sponsored Programs:

An attorney by training, I have spent the last 17 years working to improve college access for students from rural Kentucky. I came to this work by accident and continue because I see the positive impact college access programs have on students, families and schools.

I was born and raised in southeastern Kentucky, and I was the first in my family to attend college. I graduated fromBerea College and went on to receive my law degree from the University of Kentucky. In 1995, after practicing law for a few years, I realized that it was not my passion. I returned to Berea College to direct a small college access program that partnered the college with Rockcastle County Middle School, a rural Kentucky school.

I had experienced college access programs first-hand and understood their importance and impact. As a high school student, I participated in theKentucky Governor's Scholars program. As a college student, I served as a tutor counselor in the Berea College Upward Bound program. I was excited to have the opportunity to design and develop the Berea College Lifting Educational Aspirations Program, an access initiative focused on encouraging middle school students and their families to begin planning for college. I pulled together professionals who had worked in Upward Bound, Talent Search and local education agencies to get their input and together we established a strong program.

In 1998, President Clinton signed into law legislation that created the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) Initiative. GEAR UP was created to provide communities with a comprehensive, holistic and research-driven initiative to prepare low-income students for higher education. My college access work with Rockcastle County was based on the same research and goals as GEAR UP. I worked closely with Rockcastle's schools to develop and submit a GEAR UP application. We were successful, and started our GEAR UP work in 1999. We saw a positive impact on student achievement--from 1999 to 2005, we exceeded our objectives on student achievement and growth. Over a six-year period, the number of students who scored "Proficient" or "Distinguished" on Kentucky's Commonwealth Accountability Testing System increased by 17 percent in math and 15 percent in reading. High school graduation rates grew by 10 percent and college enrollment increased by 13 percent.

In 2004, I re-designed our GEAR UP model based on lessons learned and relevant research and developed a program to serve six rural school districts. We received funding and began implementing GEAR UP 2005. We again met all our objectives and saw increases in academic achievement.

In 2011, I once again re-designed our GEAR UP program based on the results and feedback we had received. Realizing that we had evidence that GEAR UP works we scaled up our efforts. We submitted two GEAR UP proposals that, combined, served 19 school districts and more than 15,000 students. We received funding to implement both programs and our annual GEAR UP funding is now the largest in the nation. We have been able to scale up our GEAR UP effort because the program works.

GEAR UP is not a pull-out program. Each GEAR UP program defines a specific grade level of students that they will work with their cohort. We then provide services to all students in our cohort for seven years. In our Berea College GEAR UP program we work with all 7th grade students during the first year of the program. We then continue to provide services to these students until they are Freshmen in college. Research tells us that peers play an important role in helping students succeed in college . Through the GEAR UP cohort approach we have seven years to develop a strong college going culture within a whole grade level of students. GEAR UP capitalizes on the power of the peer network.

Two weeks ago, we launched GEAR UP for our first cohort, the Class of 2017, with a Pep Rally for High School Graduation and College Going. Imagine this-an arena filled with 5,000 8th graders all wearing blue Class of 2017 shirts, chanting "I commit not to quit!" Part concert, part pep rally, the students had the opportunity to see that they are part of a peer group of 5,000 that is committed to high school graduation and attending college . They also realized that there are teachers, college presidents, musicians, business people, elected officials and college students from across the Commonwealth who are committed to being with them for the next seven years. The event ended with a promise from us that we would gather again with the students in the spring of 2017 to celebrate their high school graduation and college acceptance.

This week is National GEAR UP Week. It has been 14 years since GEAR UP was signed into law. I have experienced the positive impact that GEAR UP can have on students, their families and their schools. I've seen GEAR UP grow here in rural Kentucky from a small partnership between Berea College and one middle school serving 400 students to a large partnership between Berea College, Eastern Kentucky University and Hazard Community College and 19 school districts serving 15,000 students. I encourage you to learn more about GEAR UP.

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