Grant provides unique tuition credit program for sixth, seventh graders

Thanks to a $49 million federal matching grant, sixth and seventh graders in the three Marengo County school systems have the opportunity to have their first two years of community or technical college paid for.

GEAR UP Alabama benefits 9,200 students in 18 school systems in the Black Belt region of the state. It is designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education.

As an added bonus, parents of these students are themselves eligible for tuition assistance.

GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, will follow these students through their first year of college or technical school, said Dr. Luke Hallmark, superintendent of Marengo County Schools.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham is spearheading the program with input from Auburn University, explained Blaine Hathcock, principal of Demopolis Middle School.

While some of the details are still being worked out, those administering GEAR UP will learn more during training this summer.

But Hathcock said DMS isn’t waiting around. When he first talked with Auburn he was told to “Let your imagination run wild” when it came to developing programs.

With that in mind, the school has set up three summer academies for its students. The first, beginning Monday, June 1, is Civil Service conducted by the Demopolis Police Department. It will run three weeks.

Beginning June 8 and lasting two weeks are Broadcasting/Marking and Robotics/Engineering.

The GEAR Up monies will pay for teachers and field trips as well as any materials that are needed.

So far, said Hathcock, about 40 students have signed up for one of the academies.

Hallmark said the county school system is offering week-long summer camps at Alabama Southern, Auburn and Troy universities.

George Baldwin, Linden City Schools superintendent, could not be reached for comment.

Hathcock and Hallmark said the preparations began with comprehensive site visits to look at the schools’ needs, strengths and challenges.

To help implement the program, each school system will have a team leader on staff as well as a site facilitator.

Brooke Luker, the site facilitator for Demopolis, will be in charge of professional development, parental involvement plans and, as the students get into high school, offering ACT preparation, college visits and mock interviews.

She described her job as “an extra set of hands” that will focus on reaching the failing student and encouraging parents to take a greater interest in their children’s future. Among the training will be a character education program to instill values and work ethics.

Luker said her first job as site facilitator was to meet with others involved and come up with DMS’s focus. The team included Hathcock, DMS counselor Traci Pearson, teachers from the core curriculum and one who teaches an elective.

Hallmark said the county school system and Linden City Schools have teamed up to share facilitators. Judy Etheridge will work with Sweet Water and Marengo High, and Wanda Smith will be the facilitator for A.L. Johnson in Thomaston and G.P. Austin in Linden.

Hallmark said the facilitators will collaborate with the community to create a learning environment, hold parental development workshops and handle data collection.

All of those involved said the new program will constantly evolve, especially, as Luker explained, GEAR Up doesn’t look the same in every school system.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered, said Hallmark.

“As it goes, it will continue to get better,” added Hathcock.

Once the students reach high school, the team leader there will coordinate their follow-up to make sure the Classes of 2020 and 2021 are on course for completing their education and being eligible for full-ride scholarships to any Alabama community or technical college.

The program offers career guidance and counseling to every student, said Hathcock.

The matching funds required by the grant will include in-kind donations as well as donations of time volunteers.

GEAR UP “helps level the playing field” between what Demopolis can offer and the opportunities in larger, more affluent school systems, he continued. “It will help us provide opportunities to compete globally.”

Implementing this program, Hallmark said, will better prepare students to have success after high school.