Vermont’s GEAR UP education program aims at low-income students

According to the nonprofit Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, its GEAR UP program has a proven record of increasing high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment rates.

While VSAC’s claim about increased graduate rates may sound overstated, the data seems to support it.

Proctor Jr./Sr/ High School

Rutland County schools in the GEAR UP program include Benson Village School, Fair Haven Graded School, Fair Haven Union High School, Mill River High School, Proctor Junior/Senior High School and Poultney High School. Pictured: Proctor H.S. students reading a Dr. Suess book to a class of local elementary students.

GEAR UP, which VSAC started in 1999, is designed to increase the number of low-income students in education and training after high school. Its curriculum has a special focus on math and technical skills.

GEAR UP, an acronym for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is funded by taxpayers through the U.S. Department of Education.

In October, a seven-year-long $31 million GEAR UP grant awarded to VSAC from federal taxpayer funds brought six Rutland County schools into the program. With 30.4 percent of its population in poverty, the Rutland area stands to see its graduation rates benefit from the program.

“This grant is great news for Vermont students and their opportunity to continue their education,” said Scott Giles, VSAC president and CEO. ” … Access to education and training after high school is an essential component of reversing income inequality and creating career opportunities that will last a lifetime.”

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott also is concerned about higher education. Scott’s own “70x2025vt” program dovetails nicely with GEAR UP’s mission. The governor wants to arm 70 percent of Vermont’s population with either trade or higher education credentials by the year 2025.

Efforts such as GEAR UP will be needed to realize Scott’s “70x2025vt” vision.

“(Our) 70×2025 is a big goal, but one I believe that we can reach by working together and using Vermont’s power of cooperation, collective wisdom and action. My administration is, and will be, fully engaged in this effort,” according to Scott.

As recently as 2015, high school graduation rates for Vermont students aided by GEAR UP reached 91 percent — and these students graduated on time.

Among 2015 GEAR UP graduates, 81 percent enrolled in college and continued their studies for at least three semesters. Currently, VSAC works with 2,800 low-income GEAR UP students at 38 middle and high schools in Vermont. Notably, the program doesn’t end with high school graduation: there are hundreds of GEAR UP students now being overseen in their first year of college.

According to VSAC’s website, its career and college readiness plans now include 50-plus schools and seven state partner organizations.

The Rutland County schools joining the GEAR UP effort this year include Benson Village School, Fair Haven Graded School, Fair Haven Union High School, Mill River High School, Proctor Junior/Senior High School and Poultney High School.

“When we can begin to shape the conversation about education and careers early, the future opens up for (low-income) students in a way that is truly exciting,” said Kim Ezzo, guidance counselor at Fair Haven Grade School. “GEAR UP has helped dozens of our students start to dream big.”

GEAR UP involves school counselors working with students one-on-one or in supportive teams. The focus is on academic skill-building, study skills, class advising and tutoring as needed.

Students in the program get hands-on help and information about exploring a career path that attracts them. As they start considering life after high school, the students receive college search and application help; they also collect financial aid-related details, along with personal help with filling out forms and submitting them in time for consideration. Included in the GEAR UP effort are campus visits and summer college prep activities.

“Students in the GEAR UP program get a much stronger sense of what classes they need to take and what they need to accomplish to successfully take the next step to college or career training,” said Joe DeBonis, principal of Poultney High School. “And the extra attention on financial aid resources, including the GEAR UP scholarship, makes it more manageable for families.”

Every September, to start the new school year, VSAC coordinates “GEAR UP Week,” which gets teachers, students and parents involved in looking forward to graduation and continuing education.

“It’s a great way to kick off the school year with a celebration that brings the entire school community together and focuses on students’ future potential and possibilities,” said Dianne Griggs, director of GEAR UP at VSAC. “In addition to the academic and career programming, when these GEAR UP students continue their education after high school, they are eligible to receive a scholarship for up to four years of schooling.”

The following Vermont schools are part of VSAC GEAR UP program:

Franklin County: Richford Junior/Senior High School

Chittenden County: Colchester Middle and High School, Edmunds Middle School, Essex High School, South Burlington High School, Winooski Middle and High School, Champlain Valley Union High School, Burlington High School

Addison County: Middlebury Middle and High School

Rutland County: Benson Village School, Fair Haven Grade School, Fair Haven High School, Poultney Middle and High School, Proctor Middle and High School, Mill River Union Middle and High School

Windsor County: Green Mountain Union Middle and High School, Black River Union Middle and High School, Woodstock Middle and High School, Springfield High School, Riverside Middle School

Orange County: Thetford Academy, Rivendell Academy (Orford, NH), Oxbow Middle and High School, Blue Mountain Union Middle and High School

Caledonia County: St. Johnsbury Middle School, St. Johnsbury Academy, Danville Middle and High School

Essex County: Canaan School (Middle and High School), Brighton Elementary School

Orleans County: Lake Region High School, Orleans Elementary School, Charleston Elementary School, Brownington Middle School, Barton Graded School, Craftsbury Academy, Albany Community School, Irasburg Village School, Lowell Middle School, Troy School, Coventry Village School, North Country Junior High School, North Country Union High School.

Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at

Image courtesy of Proctor Jr./Sr/ High School