Grant to improve college readiness in Bridgeport

A newly awarded grant from the U.S. Department of Education will continue Yale’s partnership with Bridgeport’s public school system to help students prepare for college.

Yale was one of 66 organizations to receive a grant from the Department of Education Sept. 30 as part of the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, initiative. The federal program funds partnerships between middle schools, high schools and universities and businesses across the country that provide local services to help current seventh-grade students prepare for college over the course of six years. Under the latest grant, Yale will receive $1.1 million each year from the Department of Education to work with students and faculty in Bridgeport’s public schools.

The University’s allocated funds were determined based on the number of seventh-grade students in Bridgeport’s school district, said Nadia Ward, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale and the faculty member who wrote the grant proposal. Partnership grants are capped at $800 per student, and the money finances academic support, mentoring, teacher training and scholarships in each district, Ward said. She will serve as Yale’s and Bridgeport’s principal investigator and project director.

The GEAR UP funds and Yale leadership will help a Bridgeport public school system that is suffering from a budget deficit and generally tight finances, Ward said.

“There is a huge need because the state has come in to take over the [Bridgeport] school system,” said Ward, who has worked with Bridgeport’s district since before 1999. “With cuts across board, the district is struggling to provide the high level education that it wants to.”

While the recently announced grant will allow Yale to fund academic support for 1,435 seventh-grade students, the initial installment of $1.1 million is not the first GEAR UP grant the University has received. The Department of Education awarded Yale $6.9 million to work with then-seventh graders in Bridgeport’s district in 2008. Those funds will continue aiding the class of 2014 until graduation, with students who matriculate to colleges and universities in Connecticut benefiting from the program through freshman year.

Ward said she is glad to have the opportunity to work with a new “cohort” of seventh graders as they move through the Bridgeport Public School system. The class of 2014 has shown significant academic improvement over the past three years based on Connecticut Mastery Test scores, Ward said, and disciplinary incidents have decreased among those students.

Ruth Garth, coordinator of GEAR UP for Bridgeport Public Schools, said she thinks GEAR UP helps students who might not be college-bound start thinking about the possibility of continuing their educations. The current class of 2014 cohort did not have any members drop out during the current academic year, she said, adding that students often drop out around 10th grade.

“By starting to work with students in seventh grade, GEAR UP gives students in middle school the awareness that they have the possibility of going to college,” Garth said.

Though the newest GEAR UP grant will target students in the class of 2017 for Bridgeport’s public schools, Ward said that students throughout the school system benefit from some services ­— such as mentoring sessions and teacher training programs — that those funds provide.

Jess Reilly, a student at San Jose University who heard about GEAR UP in middle school, said the scholarship helped her “immensely.”

“GEAR UP was a presence in our high school that was always pushing us to go college,” Reilly said. “I always wanted to go to college, and GEAR UP made the road to that a lot less bumpy.”

Both Reilly and Anthouny Chawiche, a sophomore at Sacred Heart University, said the scholarship GEAR UP offers helped to curb the cost of college.

The 2011 GEAR UP grants will impact an estimated 275,000 students nationwide.

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