News & Events

Two Project GRAD Sites Win GEAR UP Grants

WASHINGTON, DC. OCTOBER 17, 2011. Two Project GRAD sites have been selected winners of this year’s highly-competitive GEAR UP awards from the U.S. Department of Education, as announced earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The winning proposals, from Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula (Alaska) and Los Angeles (CA), were among only 66 selected nationwide for the prestigious GEAR UP grant, which stands for “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.” GEAR UP provides matching grants for entire grades of students, beginning no later than seventh grade, and following them through high school – a natural fit for GRAD.

GRAD Los Angeles will use its GEAR UP grant to expand from serving three to four middle schools, and from one high school in the area to four, including one with four stand-alone academies.

“We’re very excited, as you can imagine,” said Ford Roosevelt, Executive Director of Project GRAD LA. “This grant allows us to continue, basically, our work in the schools. What we’re trying to do, as the GEAR UP grant requires, is to move forward in the community where we’ve been since 1999 to enhance awareness of what it takes to get to college.” Out of a possible 106 points by grant evaluators, the LA site scored 105.

“We have sustainability, which is great, for the next six years,” said Mike Petersen, Executive Director of Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula. “Senator Begich’s office just called the school district to announce that GRAD had gotten the grant. It was a nice surprise.”

Both sites will use the matching federal grant – released over six or seven years – to advance the core GRAD model of college-preparatory supports for a full cohort of students. Each site strengthened partnerships and proposed innovations, too, to win the grant.

Los Angeles: Sustainability and Innovative Professional Development

In Los Angeles, a $2.69 million grant will allow GRAD to continue its work with the second largest school district in the country, Los Angeles Unified.

“Our primary focus will be to continue working with families entering sixth and seventh grades,” said Mr. Roosevelt. “We want to deepen the dialogue with students, families, teachers, and the community about what it takes to be successful in school and make college possible.”

“We want to deepen the dialogue with students, families,
teachers, and the community, about what it takes
to be successful in school and make college possible.”

– Ford Roosevelt,
Executive Director, Project GRAD Los Angeles

GRAD LA’s cohort comprises approximately 3,600 students, who will be followed from grades 6 through high school graduation. The GEAR UP grant will allow GRAD LA to expand from serving three to four middle schools, and from one high school in the area to four, including one with four stand-alone academies. It will also allow GRAD to fill a critical need in the district by providing college counselors at the high schools, “soft money” positions that the district has increasingly cut to tame a multi-million dollar deficit. In the four new high school academies run by current public school principals, for instance, the district provides no college counselors at this time. “That’s where we can help,” said Mr. Roosevelt. “Our services are ever more needed.”

One innovation in Los Angeles that won high marks from the grant reviewers was tailored professional development. One of GRAD LA’s higher education partners, California State University-Northridge, credentials the great majority of teachers in the LA Unified School District. Cal State agreed to work with GRAD and the LA Unified School District to find out exactly what pedagogical models were – and were not – working in the GRAD LA schools, and to adapt targeted professional development around those findings.

“When the schools aren’t doing well, you have to find out why, what are you not doing, what’s the shortfall in your teacher credential program,” said Mr. Roosevelt. “Our solution brings the latest state of the art practice modalities into the classroom. That, for me, is a very innovative approach, that kind of relationship with the school district and the higher ed partner – to say that collaboratively we have a problem, collaboratively we can solve it.”

The grant is Los Angeles’s third GEAR-UP grant.

Kenai Peninsula: Sustainability and Expansion

GRAD Kenai Peninsula serves far fewer students than GRAD LA, distributed over a far greater area. Indeed, one of GRAD Kenai’s corporate partners to match the federal grant with in-kind service is Smoky Bay Air, which provides critical plane service to schools inaccessible by road.

GRAD Kenai will use its GEAR UP grant of $128,000 to support a cohort of approximately 160 students, following them beginning from 2nd through 8th grades at a sustained rate of $800 per student. GRAD will continue to provide instructional coaching and summer institutes, while adding a middle school summer bridge program with college-awareness activities and job-shadowing to ease the transition to 9th grade. GRAD Kenai also extended service to two more schools for whom funding was especially difficult to find.

“We’ve had success serving those schools in high-poverty areas.”

– Mike Petersen,
Executive Director, Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula

“It can be easier for us to find funding for our Alaska native students than Russian Old Believer students, who are technically ‘caucasian’ on checklists,” says Mr. Petersen. “It’s not really accurate because these students speak Russian as a first language. We’ve had success serving those schools, in high poverty areas.” GRAD Kenai will now serve three of the four Russian Old Believer schools in the area, providing summer institutes, college tours, and other features of GRAD’s college readiness supports.

The current grant is Kenai’s second GEAR UP grant.

GRAD Kenai's GEAR UP grant will support 160 students at a sustained rate of $800 per student, beginning as early as 2nd grade.


Race to the Deadline

Both Mr. Petersen and Mr. Roosevelt described the intensity of the few weeks leading to the GEAR UP grant deadline – and the end of the fiscal year – in June. The RFP was not released until early June, leaving applicants approximately three weeks to assemble partners, plans, and budgets.

“We started preparing a year ago,” said Mr. Roosevelt. “The evaluation methodology, the relationships with schools and principals, we knew we had to tighten those early so that I wouldn’t have to run around like a crazy person trying to get signatures. We front-ended all that work. We wanted it to be airtight.”
“We talked to the district this spring,
let them know it was coming down the pipe,
got their blessing and inspiration.”

-Mike Petersen

GRAD LA assembled a key staff nine months before the grant deadline, building a plan and a budget around anticipated components of the grant and providing “extensive professional development” to the staff in logic models.

“I won’t soon foget the day before it was due, we all sat in our lunchroom until 4, 5, 6 in the afternoon,” said Mr. Roosevelt. “We had one go-to document projected up on the screen that we kept modifying until we got it down to what was submissible.” He described the hoot and cheer as a colleague finally hit the “send” button.

Mr. Petersen, too, organized staff to begin the grant proposal before the official release of the RFP, although not quite a year ahead. “We talked to the district this spring, let them know it was coming down the pipe, got their blessing and inspiration,” he recalls. “We asked: what would you like to see us do? They suggested: the same as the last grant in 2005. That was helpful information, that they were happy with what we’d been doing, we didn’t have to create something completely from scratch.”

“Still, when the RFP was released a lot of school district people were on vacation,” said Mr. Petersen. “They’re our main and most important partner, so it was sometimes difficult to gather data. The last thing they wanted to do was go to the office and dig up stuff. That was the most stressful part.”

This year’s GEAR UP applicants faced stiffer competition than in years past, when grants were given to several hundred districts rather than this year’s final 66.