OU allocates $86 million for rural school college readiness program

Nov. 10—The University of Oklahoma announced that it will allocate $86 million to help middle schoolers in rural Oklahoma to prepare for college and workforce training.

The decision came after the university received a $43 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education which was matched by Oklahoma's Promise program and other grant partners.

The money will be used to relaunch GEAR UP for LIFE — Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — a college readiness federal program started in 1998. The program will work in collaboration with the K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal.

"The GEAR UP program empowers students for success in college and beyond, and OU's K20 Center has a proven track record of building innovative partnerships with Oklahoma schools, teachers and community leaders to improve student outcomes," said OU President Joseph Harroz Jr.

Leslie Williams, K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal, said she learned about the grant about one month ago.

"The federal program is to help students from impoverished schools to be best prepared to move on to some sort of post secondary college experience," Williams said.

She said this is the school's sixth GEAR UP project.

"This one specifically is a partnership with 28 schools across Oklahoma and will impact 8,258 students," she said.

She said the seven-year grant will allow the university to enter schools to work with kids as early as sixth and seventh grade.

"We follow them throughout middle school, high school, and through their first year of college," Williams said. "What the GEAR UP grant funding provides is all sorts of services to create a college and career culture as we work with the students over those seven years, so we stay with the same group of kids throughout that time."

Oklahoma school districts with participating middle schools include Anadarko, Caney Valley, Catoosa, Checota, Chickasha, Chouteau-Mazie, Davis, Dewmar, Drumright, El Reno, Elmore City, Enid, Frontier, Guymon, Lawton, Mid-Del, Muskogee, Oklahoma Union, Salina, Sallisaw, Shawnee, Vian and Wagoner.

U.S. House Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, attended a GEAR UP for LIFE event held at the Embassy Suites on Thursday where he said programs like GEAR UP are important to allow low-income students to have access to education and workforce training.

"I am proud to congratulate OU on this significant grant, which will allow even more Oklahoma students the opportunity to achieve high-paying, high-skill jobs in their home state," Cole said.

Williams said as part of the grant, all 8,258 students will have the opportunity to visit a college campus, including OU, which increases the likelihood that they will attend.

"Oftentimes among students experiencing poverty, no one in their family has ever gone to college, so they've never been to a college campus," Williams said. "Research really shows that it's important for students to experience all of these different types of opportunities so they will have that choice."

She said the university understands that not all of the students will attend college, but the goal of GEAR UP is to prepare them so they can better make that choice, as well as other career-training options.

She said the program will also provide mentors for these students who will follow them throughout their high school experiences and their first year of college.

"As they are a little bit older and getting close to the end of high school, we'll offer concurrent enrollment and other opportunities so students get that dual credit and already have some college credit before graduating from high school," Williams said.

"Students in poverty oftentimes don't have any of those types of experiences."

Brian King covers education and politics for The Transcript. Reach him at bking@normantranscript.com.