UW Today

This is an archived article.

August 11, 1999

$32 million GEAR UP project boosts education for Yakima Valley poor

The U.S. Department of Education has approved a $32 million initiative to reverse the cycle of poverty and low educational attainment that plagues the lower Yakima Valley in central Washington.

The GEAR UP Project – a partnership of the University of Washington Office of Minority Affairs, Northwest Learning and Achievement Group, Yakima Valley Community College, seven local school districts, several Yakima-area community groups and Microsoft – will provide educational support services to thousands of middle and high school students in the Yakima Valley over the next five years. The project area suffers poverty and unemployment rates that are nearly four times the national average and that are driven by chronically low rates of high school graduation and higher education attainment.

“We intend to increase dramatically the awareness and hope among low-income, first-generation students and their families about the possibilities of education beyond high school,” says Myron Apilado, vice president of minority affairs at the UW. “We also want to increase very substantially the numbers of students who are well prepared for college by the time they graduate from high school.”

The project builds on 12 years of outreach work with the Mount Adams school district, where 90 percent of the 1999 graduating class at White Swan high school will be attending a two-year or four-year college this fall. GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) will greatly expand these efforts by providing participating middle schools and high schools in seven Yakima Valley school districts with academic assessment and class planning, teacher training and development, technology enhancements, parent outreach, service learning, mentoring and advising. In addition, students will have access to career and college planning, information sessions on college readiness issues such as financial aid and admissions, and campus field trips.

In its first year, the project will serve all sixth-graders in the participating school districts – more than 1,200 students. In each succeeding year, the next sixth grade class will be added while previous classes will continue to be served as they progress through middle and high school. By the fifth year, the project will reach more than 7,000 students.

The lower Yakima Valley is marked by high rates of unemployment (15.9 percent) and poverty (48 percent). More than 81 percent of students in the participating schools qualify for free or subsidized lunch programs. These challenges often translate into low levels of educational achievement and advancement. In the Yakima Valley, 46 percent of the population has no high school diploma and just 7 percent of the population has received a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

The demographic profile of the lower Yakima Valley is 81 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Native American, due largely to the local agriculture industry’s reliance on migrant and seasonal labor and to the proximity of the Yakama Nation reservation. While GEAR UP doesn’t target ethnic minorities, project partners believe the outreach efforts will encourage students from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue higher education. Passage of Initiative 200, which bars consideration of race and ethnicity in college and university admissions decisions, has prompted concerns that even fewer minority students will seek college degrees. Enrollment of Hispanics and Native Americans at the UW for fall 1999 is expected to be down at least 20 percent from fall 1998.

“We didn’t write this grant in response to Initiative 200; the project will serve all sixth graders in the partner school districts,” says Apilado. “But with Initiative 200, we’re more concerned than ever that under-represented minority students understand the benefits of higher education and believe that a college degree is within their reach.”

The project, which will run from 1999 to 2004, is funded by $9.7 million from the U.S. Department of Education and $22.6 million from the participating institutions.

The GEAR UP Project partners include the UW, Yakima Valley Community College, the Yakama Nation, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, the Healthy Communities Alliance, the Northwest Learning and Achievement Group and the Microsoft Corp.

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For more information, contact William Baker, associate vice president for minority affairs at the UW, at (206) 543-6598 or bbaker@u.washington.edu.