By Jerri CulpepperThe Moore AmericanWed Jan 25, 2012, 07:08 AM CST

MOORE — Imagine living in a family, a neighborhood, where no one you know has ever gone to college, or even aspired to it. Imagine knowing from an early age that, more than likely, after graduating from high school, if you made it that far, you are destined to work in the same factory, fast food restaurant or other blue-collar job as your parents, siblings, friends and neighbors.

Then, imagine this. In middle school, you are approached and told that, while it will require you to work hard now and in the coming years, you have a choice. College is a possibility, if you desire it. So is a career. You can aspire to become a journalist, teacher, architect, engineer, lawyer, doctor — the possibilities are endless.

That scenario will become reality for more than 4,500 sixth- and seventh-graders in 10 low-income urban schools within the Oklahoma City Public School district, thanks to a recent seven-year, $26 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma City Public Schools.

The GEAR UP for PROMISE (Promotion of Readiness through Opportunities that Motivate and Increase Student Expectations) project seeks to better prepare urban students for college by increasing the ability of students to meet established performance levels in math, science, literacy and technology. The program also aims to provide students and their families with a better understanding of how to prepare and pay for college.

Gregg Garn, interim dean of the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education and director of the K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal — a statewide education research and development center based in the college that promotes innovative learning through school-university-community collaboration — and Scott Wilson, associate director of the K20 Center, say that the implications go far beyond helping the students directly served through this grant. If successful, the model can be used to launch similar efforts in other impoverished areas across the state.

Any practice that has a significant chance of breaking the cycle of poverty is worth close investigation, not only, of course, for the alleviation of human suffering, but because of the tremendous costs associated with welfare programs.

In Oklahoma, as in many parts of the nation, poverty rates are, tragically, rising. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, which recently released new state-level data from the American Community Survey on poverty in 2010, some 616,610 Oklahomans — one out of every six — lived in poverty in 2010. The state’s poverty rate rose from 16.2 percent in 2009 to 16.9 percent in 2010. Oklahoma’s poverty rate remains 1.6 percentage points above the nation’s and was 14th highest among the states. The statistics are worse for children. The poverty rate for children, at 24.5 percent, is higher than that of working-age adults (15.5 percent) or seniors (9.3 percent). And the poverty rate for children rose 2.2 percentage points in 2010.

Poverty is closely correlated with education. An individual with only a high school degree is four times as likely to be poor as a college graduate. And persons without a GED or high school diploma are almost seven times likelier to be poor than college graduates. About a quarter of poor Oklahomans over age 25 did not graduate from high school.

Wilson, who also serves the K20 Center as director of Innovative Technology Partnerships, said the grant will fund the recruitment and employment of 21 professionals, ranging from master teachers, who will mentor cohort teachers on the use of research-based instructional strategies, to a veteran school teacher with knowledge of the schools’ specific needs. In all, he explains, the grant will allow the hiring of 10 professionals with work experience within schools and/or with students from areas with high poverty; five technical staff who will author Digital Game-Based Learning environments that target specific project goals and objectives; and six research, evaluation and support professionals who will help implement project services.

The project will utilize a four-phase model developed by the K20 Center.

In the first phase, Wilson said, each of the schools will send leaders — including teachers, counselors and parents — to a leadership seminar, where they will form teams. These teams will develop an action plan that ties technology integration and school goals and build a community that supports authentic learning that aligns with core standards established by the state. Phase one also includes a “Counselor Academy,” where counselors gain insight from urban-based research and learn best practices to increase students’ and families’ knowledge of and access to college financial aid.

In phase two, school administrators and teachers learn how to involve students in critical thinking through real-world learning scenarios that lead to self-directed student learning. Wilson explains that experience has shown that, as students develop critical-thinking skills, they also gain the confidence to take and succeed in rigorous courses, which increase the likelihood of their graduating from high school.

In the third phase of the project, the teachers will participate in the K20 Center’s Authentic Teaching Experiences summer intervention program, where they will learn how to implement interactive lessons that will engage their students. K20 staff will provide ongoing support through mentoring, debriefing, regional meetings and institutes after they return to their classrooms.

In the fourth phase of the project, the middle school students in the program will be taken to visit several colleges and universities in the state, where they will be exposed to campus life and learn about the different degree paths and/or careers that are available to them. During this visit, the students will have a chance to visit with college representatives and to receive specific information on such issues of concern as entrance requirements, cost, scholarships and other financial aid options.

Students and their parents also will be invited to participate in a two-day college forum, where they will be invited to explore different majors and visit the learning spaces, labs and facilities used by students currently following the major or career path in which they are interested.

Noting that all of the schools selected for the GEAR UP project regularly score very low on the College Readiness Benchmarks — a measurement that predicts success in freshman-level college courses — Wilson said their overall goal will be to move this cohort of students’ performance in mathematics, science reasoning, literacy and technology to the state average. Also in the process, they aspire to a number of other incremental improvements, including an increase in daily attendance and a greater percentage of students who are promoted on time to successive grade levels.

One of the ways they hope to accomplish this is by exposing the teachers to new ways of teaching that have proven to be more effective than relying solely on traditional methods, including lectures and memorization.

“While teachers are not entertainers,” Wilson said, “they should be able to provide the connections from what students are asked to learn to an application in the real world. This type of learning, known as authentic learning, has been shown to improve student achievement for all students and is particularly effective with students of low socioeconomic status.

“When instructional tasks are interesting and require creativity by students, student engagement and achievement are positively impacted,” he added.

The K20 staff also hopes that by providing more guidance on the courses college-bound students need to take and by exposing them to campus life at several colleges, these students will be better armed with the prerequisite skills and strategies to succeed in their studies, both now and when they head off to college.

“This seven-year partnership helps students and their families explore opportunities and develop plans which can unlock doors to future career options we cannot imagine today,” Garn said.  “It’s good for individual students and their families, their schools and our state.”


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