When asked how many of them planned to go to college, all 29 seventh-graders in Melanie Ishihara’s pre-algebra class at Waipahu Intermediate School raised their hands.
The students are part of a cohort that will participate in GEAR UP Hawaii, or the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs run by the University of Hawaii, which helps put disadvantaged intermediate and high school students on a college track.
UH recently received a U.S. Department of Education matching grant of $39 million — the largest it has received to date — to run the program over the next seven years. The funds, which are matched dollar-for-dollar by the university, state and private donations, are expected to provide services to nearly 25,000 students through 2025.
“This is our fourth grant from GEAR UP, and clearly, the effectiveness and impact of our prior work influenced their willingness to give us such a large grant this time around,” said UH President David Lassner. “The federal grants help us explore interventions that are really successful.”
The Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education, a collaboration between UH, the state Department of Education and Executive Office on Early Learning, runs GEAR UP activities that help students statewide prepare academically, explore dual-credit options and navigate the college application and financial aid process.
With the first grant in 2000, UH recruited eighth-graders from public middle schools to become “GEAR UP Scholars” by earning the more rigorous Board of Education Recognition Diploma. With the previous grant in 2011, UH partnered with the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation to offer an “Early College” program, bringing college courses to high school campuses.
The availability of college courses at high schools for dual credit has, so far, shown promising results in motivating disadvantaged students to enroll and stay in college, officials said.
GEAR UP also helped coordinate a 12th-grade “Introduction to College Mathematics” course designed to prepare high school seniors for college-level math courses at UH to ensure a smoother transition.
KEITH HAYASHI, principal of Waipahu High School, which has more than 2,500 students in grades 9 through 12, said he has seen the program transform his students since receiving a grant in 2010.
Part of that is due to availability of mentors and role models, he said, as well as the fostering of a college-going culture for families.
“It definitely provides experiences and opportunities for kids and their families that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said. “Through experiences, it changes the belief of what students feel they’re capable of doing, and they learn to believe in themselves. It extends to their family and to the community.”
In particular, visits to college campuses here and on the mainland have been beneficial, along with workshops that help families put together a plan and apply for financial aid, Hayashi said. There also is a trickle-down effect to younger siblings.
Stephen Schatz, executive director of Hawaii P-20, said the public school and university systems share the same strategic vision.
“I think what’s really great is that Hawaii’s public schools have great working relationships with their UH partners at the 10 campuses,” said Schatz. “Our purpose for this grant is to create a pipeline of motivated and prepared students who can succeed in college and go on to success in their careers, and this means we need to start early with that participation and the building of that knowledge.”
The matching grant includes $6.7 million for UH-Manoa to work with Waipahu Intermediate and High schools, Wahiawa Middle, Leilehua High and Hilo Intermediate and High schools. UH-Maui College received $3.5 million to work with schools on the Valley Isle.
The grant follows students currently enrolled in seventh grade all the way through high school and their first year of college.
RANDALL DUNN, principal of Waipahu Intermediate, said he has seen the program’s affect on students. “The total mindset changes,” he said. With more schools participating, there can be a greater exchange of ideas among administrators and educators, he said.
At Waipahu Intermediate, where more than half of the school’s 1,300 students qualify for free and reduced lunch, the opportunity to take early college courses exists right after completing eighth grade, during the summer program before high school.
Juanito Moises, a recent UH-Manoa graduate with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, serves as a mentor and returns to the Waipahu schools he attended to share his experiences with students.
Moises, 22, was the first in his family to get a college degree in the United States and is now working as a civil engineer.
An immigrant from the Philippines, Moises learned English while going to school. He said he knew he wanted to go to college one day but had no idea how to make that happen. GEAR UP mentors were there for him every step of the way, Moises said, and the program helped him apply for scholarships.
Hayashi said that, like Moises, many former GEAR UP Hawaii participants return as mentors. Over the summer, for instance, several graduates from various fields of engineering worked with students to design and build remote-control cars controlled by muscle movements.
“GEAR UP is also about giving back,” Hayashi said. “Once you go on to college and become successful, what you do is give back to your community and school that supported you, and help the next generation of kids.”