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The Gary School Corp. is one of 11 school districts to benefit from a $24.5 million seven-year college U.S. Department of Education success grant awarded to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and Purdue University.

"Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs," or GEAR UP, will fund a statewide effort to strengthen academic preparation, college readiness and career guidance, beginning at the middle school level.

GEAR UP is a separate program, but aligns with the existing Scholar Success Program (SSP) goals of the Evan Bayh 21st Century Scholars program, according to Jason Bearce, associate commissioner with the ICHE.

High school seniors graduating in May 2017 who are enrolled in the 21st Century Scholars program are the first group to navigate the SSP. They are required to complete 12 activities to net the prized four years of in-state college tuition. The scholarship program is based on income eligibility. The activities are meant to provide a road map for college-bound students.

Some of the requirements include: creating a graduation plan in ninth grade and participating in an extracurricular or service activity; take a career interests assessment in 10th grade, getting work experience including job shadowing, internship or part-time work; visiting a college campus, taking an entrance exam, estimating college costs and searching for scholarships. Seniors must submit a college application, watch a video on college success and file a FAFSA.

"GEAR UP is a separate (from the 21st Century Scholars program) but it is a related effort to build a stronger infrastructure," said Bearce. The 21st Century Scholars "have a really significant scholarship, but (SSP) is nothing that we wouldn't want every student to have the opportunity to participate. Students who have those types of experiences are better prepared to succeed in college."

It's all about getting students ready to succeed in college, according to Fred Jackson, Outreach Coordinator for the Indiana Commission on Higher Education's 21st Century Scholars Program in the Northwest Region. "The SSP requirement starts off in ninth grade by completing a graduation plan, extra-curricular activities, watching a video."

"By the time they become seniors they are ready to begin college applications and file for FAFSA," said Jackson.

The bulk of the GEAR UP grant will be managed through Purdue University, according to Bearce, but the ICHE will receive between $600,000 and $800,000 each year. The funding will also support research on the impact of the interventions on student success. The College of Education will research students from seventh grade through high school to better understand STEM learning, literacy, persistence and entry into post-secondary study and careers.

Since June, news reports around the state raised fears that many incoming seniors enrolled in the 21st Century Scholar program were not on track to meet the criteria of the SSP and could lose their scholarship.

Statewide for the 2017 graduating class, the state is aware that there are a large number of students who have done these activities, but haven't registered online to the ScholarTrack dashboard and therefore can't be tracked, said Bearce. He expects to see improvement as more students register their accounts.

"Our numbers in the spring were 8 percent — now we have one-third. Already we've seen big jumps," said Bearce. "We think it will continue over the semester."

In Northwest Indiana, local school corporations and their partners have been working with students to get them signed into the ScholarTrack dashboard and log their accomplished activities, according to Jackson.

Locally the numbers have been improving since May, said Jackson.

"We were concerned. We want to make sure all the scholars have ample time to get this done," said Jackson. "Counselors, principals and superintendents have been notified and they have jumped on board and started making waves to make sure the guidelines have been met."

Separate grant funding awarded this year will provide partners with $25 per student for SSP completion.

Knox High School is one of the schools participating in that program, according to Jackson.

Nancy Coltun Webster is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

Source: Chicago Tribune