Lincoln County schools join GEAR UP program

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Libby, Troy and Eureka schools plan to implement GEAR UP programs in their middle and high schools for the first time this year.

GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

The partnership is possible through a seven-year $28 million federal grant awarded to the state to improve high school graduation and college enrollment rates for students from low-income families.

The grant provides funding for college and career readiness services such as tutoring, financial aid information, enrollment in rigorous academic courses, mentoring, college visits, supplemental curriculum materials and professional development for school staffers.

Most participating students are first-generation college students, according to Jessie Salisbury, program coordinator for Montana GEAR UP.

“GEAR UP increases the access to students who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity or feeling they could succeed in college,” Salisbury said.

The program serves seventh- through 12th-graders. In the program’s first year, approximately 200 seventh-graders in the three school districts will receive services. An additional grade level is added in subsequent years.

Tracking students as they enter college is important, Salisbury said. Through exit interviews, she said students may be asked questions such as what they felt was lacking in their high school education to prepare them in the first year of college; if they chose not to go to college, why not; and what factors contributed to that.

“It will get schools to focus on the things they might be lacking as well what they’re doing right,” Salisbury said.

Libby School District Superintendent Kirby Maki said he wants to track students not just to their first semester at a college, but through college graduation to their first job.

“We want to know that they actually completed college. That’s one area we’re hoping to build on,” Maki said. “Access to higher education is critical not only for the success of our students, but for the economic future of Libby.” 

Increasing academic performance in mathematics is one of the goals at Libby, Maki said, which is why the school district used part of its grant money to hire a math tutor to organize an after-school enrichment program.

“This funding gives us much more firepower,” Maki said of improving curriculum during a time when funding is decreasing and schools are cutting back.

Other participating schools include Arlee, Box Elder, Browning, Hardin, Harlem, Hays-Lodgepole, Heart Butte, Lame Deer, Lodge Grass, Pryor, Rocky Boy, St. Ignatius, St. Regis, Thompson Falls and Wolf Point.

Grant money also will be used to pilot a program allowing every high school junior in 50 schools to take the ACT college entrance exam.

“The GEAR UP program has been a remarkable partner with my office and has helped to broaden our efforts around Graduation Matters Montana,” said Denise Juneau, state school superintendent. “Each of the GEAR UP schools has agreed to work with their communities to increase the number of students graduating from high school, ready for college and [ready] to step into the work force.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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