Gearing up to enhance college readiness for underserved students: Insights from a capacity building workshop

I was fortunate to attend the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP)/ Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) 2018 Capacity Building Workshop in Las Vegas, Nevada. The three-day workshop brought together GEAR UP community partners, school and district administrators, and researchers from across the country for professional learning.

During the workshop sessions, peers discussed their successes and difficulties, shared strategies and practices, and more importantly shared alternate perspectives on common issues and topics.

GEAR UP is a competitive U.S. Department of Education grants program designed to increase the number of underserved student populations prepared to enter and succeed in college. State and local partnerships receive awards to implement activities like tutoring, mentoring, summer programs, financial education and college scholarships. Activities typically serve at least one grade level (or cohort of students) beginning no later than 7th-grade and continue serving that cohort until their anticipated high school graduation or into their first year of college.

Each day of the workshop began with a keynote address. Linda Cliatt-Wayman, principal and renowned school-turnaround expert, spoke of her motivational story to transform Philadelphia schools on the Persistently Dangerous List. Greg Simon, President of the Biden Cancer Initiative, stressed the importance of communication, shared data, and coming together to share practices and strategies. Natalie Spiro, Founder and President of Drum Café West Coast, led the audience through an interactive drumming performance illustrating GEAR UP’s collective voice and unity of purpose. Even an Elvis impersonator came to liven things up!

But what I found most informative and inspiring were the seminars after each keynote. It was during these sessions that peers from various disciplines from across the country could discuss their successes and difficulties, share strategies and practices, and more importantly share alternate perspectives on common issues and topics. In this post, I share some of my personal insights from those discussions.

  1. Harmonize chaos with a theory of action.
    Harmonize chaos with a theory of action.

    The complexity of GEAR UP was evident each day of the workshop. The importance of establishing clear and detailed program plans was reiterated time and again by attendees and presenters, including for details such as communicating effectively across multiple partners, aligning student needs to projects services and resources, engaging parents and students, monitoring program implementation and performance, and documenting match and cost-share requirements. Several presentations stressed that the foundation of a clear and detailed program plan is a theory of action, or logic model. The theory of action helps to clearly align the identified needs with the program design, the services provided, and the personnel or partners providing services. A good program plan describes the evidence supporting the theory of action, i.e. the evidence supporting why the program design and services are predicted to work.

    In my experience, program implementers typically describe a theory of action in their funding application but then fail to incorporate it into active goal setting and planning or use it to assess assumptions on an ongoing basis. I’ve shared resources for developing theory of actions in a previous blog post. The theory of action for GEAR UP grant applications needs to clearly link who the program will serve with the identified need. It should incorporate academic, family engagement, and partnership components into the service model and be informed by all the available evidence. For reference, here is a planning tool designed to assist grantees with translating their logic models into detailed implementation plans.

  2. Support program improvement with effective evaluations.
    Support program improvement with effective evaluations.

    GEAR UP programs often include both a process evaluation led by program staff and an impact evaluation led by an external evaluator. Workshop attendees reported that the impact evaluations focus on measuring program effectiveness without providing insight or direction on how to make improvements. However, one of the more salient themes from the discussions was the need for effective evaluations, that is evaluations that inform ongoing program improvement, as opposed to evaluations of program effectiveness. I was struck by how many attendees expressed a need for periodic or ongoing process evaluations to uncover program strengths and weaknesses in detail.

    The implication was clear for me: current evaluation efforts need to focus on providing program staff with actionable information for improving program implementation, which in turn will improve the support for students. For GEAR UP, as with all programs, effective evaluations should be designed at the same time the theory of action is elaborated. They should be linked to a continuous improvement cycle, identify specific benchmarks or indicators for each program objective and performance goal, and provide clear timelines on how and from whom data will be collected and reported.

  3. Ensure sustainable, replicable programs using detailed plans.
    Ensure sustainable, replicable programs using detailed plans.

    Workshop attendees repeatedly noticed the importance of sustainability. They emphasized that clear, systemic and sustainable change must be planned for and documented at the start. Program design and implementation plans must clearly identify and describe strategies, practices, and timelines for sustaining program activities for each grade level as GEAR UP cohorts progress. These detailed plans ensure that activities can be replicated and continued beyond the life of a program.

I left the workshop excited and motivated to continue working with GEAR UP partners nationwide as we all strive to promote college awareness and readiness across some of the nation’s most disadvantaged students. It was clear in the workshop sessions that many of the attendees were positive about the program’s long-term future and success.

Shortly after the workshop concluded, however, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget which proposes to eliminate GEAR UP grant funding entirely. The administration’s 2017 budget also proposed to eliminate GEAR UP, but Congress rejected that cut and funded another round of grantees. I can only hope for a similar reversal now.

Photo credit: Jessica Scranton/FHI 360

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