See how GEAR UP looks to guide Port Arthur middle school students through college’s freshman year

Published 11:02 pm Friday, October 27, 2023

A college access program aimed at middle school students in Port Arthur Independent School District is gaining momentum.

GEAR UP, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, helps students and their families plan early for college and career plans after high school.

Nathella Collins, the coordinator at Lincoln Middle School, said the program helps after high school by increasing opportunities and options the students have as they go out and think about their dreams and career paths.

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The seven-year Department of Education funded grant follows a group of middle school sixth and seventh graders who are now seventh and eighth graders that are members of the graduating classes of 2028 and 2029.

The program follows students through their first year in college, focusing exclusively on improving college readiness, especially for low-income students and their families, according to Brandilyn Barnes Jacobs, the coordinator at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Collins and Jacobs presented the information on GEAR UP and its grant, which is in partnership with the University of Texas, during this week’s school board meeting.

Local students have toured a number of colleges and universities; saw a college football game and attended a San Antonio Spurs game in March, among other experiences.

But there’s more to the program than just visiting universities.

Collins said they learn about college requirements, financial responsibilities and the campus, itself.

“You want to make sure you know what your college fit is because you may be from Port Arthur, Texas, which is kind of an urban area, but you may be thinking about or want to go to a college that’s not in an urban area. You want to know, is this college the best college for me?” Collins said.

Nathella Collins, left, GEAR UP program coordinator at Lincoln Middle School and Brandilyn Barnes Jacobs, coordinator at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, speak to school board members. (Mary Meaux/The News)

Program requirements

The program has requirements that must be met, such as curriculum development and alignment, after school and bridge/transition programs, summer programs, career development and more.

Collins said during the summer they offered a transition program for incoming seventh graders going into the eight grade that will be taking the Algebra I course. There was also a Rising Star Camp to help increase math skills, she said.

The program offers 24/7 and comprehensive mentoring, which is where people from various companies are hired and come into the campuses to mentor. Students also learn leadership skills, study skills and workshop skills.

The program also offers access to behavioral health counseling (MD LIVE).

“This allows for virtual counseling so not only the student but the student and family members or parents… a mother or father can join in with virtual counseling,” Collins said. “That virtual counseling piece can take place at the office or it can take place at their home, whichever time they choose to make those appointments.”

Going forward, GEAR UP would like for the students to go on an overnight bus tour to visit multiple colleges.

During the summer, program officials are asking for eighth graders to participate in the University of Texas summer camp and some seventh graders to participate in the Texas A&M University Camp, which is anywhere from two to three days.

Collins reminded board members the camps are chaperoned.

Board President Brandon Bartie said the one thing that grabbed him during the presentation was the fact the program follows students up to the freshman year of college.

“I think that’s the most important because we lose a lot of kids in that area, their freshman year,” Bartie said. “Some will say, ‘you know what, it’s not for me. I can’t make it.’ But by pushing them and being there to guide them, I think that’s going to help a lot of kids out.”