published Friday, March 30th, 2012

GEAR UP program helps middle schoolers focus on college

Hunter Huckabay, director of Gear Up, talks to participants and mentors at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in this file photo.
Hunter Huckabay, director of Gear Up, talks to participants and mentors at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in this file photo.
Brett Clark
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The final question of Thursday's GEAR UP College Knowledge Bowl appeared on the screen.

"How much do tuition, books, and supplies for one year cost at UTC?"

Four teams, each representing a local middle school participating in the GEAR UP after-school program, hurriedly scrawled their answer on dry-erase boards, then held it up for the bowl judges to see. Being the final round, the teams could wager the points they already earned, so stakes were even higher.

Not only did the East Lake Academy Bosses get the answer correct ($8,018), but they wagered just enough so they wouldn't lose too much if they guessed wrong. The strategy worked, and the Bosses won the tournament with 630 points, seventh-grader DeTavious Taylor said.

College Knowledge Bowl was a cultivation of the information gained throughout the school year in GEAR UP, a program that prepares low-income or underprivileged students with the resources and knowledge to go onto post-secondary education. GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

It's just the first step for Taylor to get into either Middle Tennessee State University or University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where'd he like to study engineering.

"I like hands on stuff, and I like to fix stuff with people," he said.

Taylor was one of about 160 sixth- and seventh-graders from Dalewood, East Lake Academy, Orchard Knob Middle School and the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy who signed up to participate in the program, GEAR UP Director Hunter Huckabay said.

"The issue is, these kids don't have the resources available," he said. "The big question for them is, 'Why do we want to come back and do all the extra work at this point?' We accelerate them."

GEAR UP allows students not only to fine-tune their academic skills, but they also partner with counselors -- University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students -- and tour the campus and have a feel for how rewarding the college life can be, Huckabay said.

"They really like and respect the counselors," he said. "They want to be like them, so they want to get the grades they need to do so."

The four teams that participated in the bowl were chosen after they won the preliminary rounds against the other teams within their school, Huckabay said. The questions were based on information given during the program about every facet of college and college preparedness, including the names of Tennessee colleges and their histories, preliminary tests, and grade point averages for admissions.

"Knowledge is power, and we're giving them the knowledge they need to succeed," said Deardra McGee, who created the GEAR UP over 10 years ago.

One question asked the teams "What's the number of years you must attend college before you can play a professional sport?" It's a question that seventh-grader Shymez Brabson probably paid special attention to.

"I want to be a professional football player, but they tell me you have to have an education in something first," Brabson said. "Math is one of special things that will probably be one of my prime majors."

Brabson is clearly on the right track, as he was honored for perfect attendance Thursday.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, GEAR UP focuses on a different group of students each time the grant is awarded, Huckabay said.

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