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Francisco Aviles Pino said his parents—both of them college-educated immigrants from Mexico—always talked to him about the importance of going to college. Yet during his freshman year at Katella High School in Anaheim, Calif., his grades dropped, and he felt college wasn't for him.

"My mom, when she saw my report card, she broke down in front of me," he said. "I remember that very vividly. She wanted me to go to college so bad."

Today, the 19-year-old is a sophomore at Fullerton College double majoring in ethnic studies and political science. He has plans to transfer to a four-year university to continue his education and is applying to several schools this year.

Aviles Pino credits the GEAR UP program—which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs—for helping him get into college. He said the federally funded program helped him see himself "not just as a potential college student, but as someone who belonged in the classroom."

"GEAR UP really empowered me," he said. "It wasn't easy going from a 1.0 GPA to almost a 4.0 GPA by the end of high school."

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, GEAR UP offers state and partnership grants that are designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to go into and succeed in college. Those awarded the grants are required to work with an entire cohort of students, usually beginning in 7th grade. They follow the cohort through high school to ensure they graduate and are ready for college.

Last month, three partnership grants totaling more than $5 million were awarded to universities in Utah, New York and California. A state grant of nearly $3 million was also awarded to Kansas. The new grants will follow students onto their first year of college, something that hasn't been done before.

"The GEAR UP grants enable organizations to support youth early in the process to help them attend college," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently in a press release announcing the new grants. "They will help provide mentoring, support, and financial aid to help at-risk students succeed in college, and make their mark in today's global economy."

“With federally funded grants, groups of students are mentored and guided since middle school to get them prepared to enter - and stay - in college.”

One of the latest partnership grants was awarded to California State University, Fullerton, making it the fourth grant awarded to the university. It will receive $1,116,440 to serve a cohort of about 1,500 students starting in 7th grade and follow them through high school and then onto their first year of college. The large majority of students at these target schools are Latino, low-income and potentially first-generation college students.

Adriana Badillo, director of the GEAR UP program at California State University, Fullerton, said GEAR UP students are provided a number of services. That includes meeting with students at an early age to help them develop a college plan.

"One of the things that we really try to instill in our students is that college requires planning and preparation—and the earlier the better," Badillo said.

Once in high school, students are advised to take college-level classes and have access to peer tutors and advisers. They're also able to participate in summer programs and college field trips. When it comes to the college application process, students and their parents are educated on how to apply for college and about the financial aid options that are available.

"Our goal is to empower students and their families to make the choices that best fit their aspirations and talents," Badillo said. "Also, we work and support school administrators and teachers to develop capacity to make systemic changes that will continue to support and fully develop a college-going culture."

Being the first in her family to go to college, Badillo said she can relate to GEAR UP students. She said she wants to help them "reach their full academic potential" as well as "expand their world view of the endless opportunities and benefits of a college education."

Bruce Irushalmi, who heads the Bronx GEAR UP Network, said he also can relate to many of the GEAR UP students he serves in the Bronx in New York City. He grew up poor there and was raised by a single mother who struggled to afford to send him to college.

He said many of the issues he faced growing up in the Bronx are similar to what students in the area face today, such as pressure from parents—especially Latino parents—to stay close to home and not go far away for college.

"That has to be worked on because not every good college is near the house or near the apartment," he said. "It's something that we have to engage with parents early on so that they think a little differently about getting their kids a college education."

The Bronx GEAR UP Network, which is a project of the Bronx Institute of Lehman College at the City University of New York, was also awarded a GEAR UP partnership grant this year. It will receive $1,800,000 to serve a cohort of 2,250 students—6th and 7th graders—in several Bronx public schools. This is the fifth GEAR UP grant awarded to the Bronx GEAR UP Network.

Most of the students who will benefit from the new grant are Latinos who come from low-income and immigrant households. Many of them are also English language learners and some receive special education services.

Irushalmi said the Bronx GEAR UP Network works with students to get them prepared for college and helps them find a college that's "a good fit" for them and is aligned with their interests. He also said he likes how under the new GEAR UP grant, students will be followed onto their first year of college—something he and others pushed for.

"We saw too many tragic stories of students who put in the work and got into college but all of a sudden didn't finish," he said. "We want to make sure not only that students meet the challenges, but that they also go on to the second year."

Source: nbcnews