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Program for Middle Schoolers May Be Eliminated

A federally funded program helping thousands of Nevada middle schoolers from low-income families to set their sights on college was put on the chopping block Monday by President Bush.

The president's proposed budget calls for $56 billion to be spent nationwide on education, with deep cuts to 16 programs and another 48 initiatives eliminated outright.

One of those programs facing elimination is Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP. More than a million students nationwide have joined GEAR UP since its inception in 1999.

Hector Garza, president of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, said in a statement Monday that the cuts to educational programs such as GEAR UP would devastate efforts to help at-risk students.

"It's hard to see how this budget does anything but leave lots and lots of students, especially low-income students, behind," Garza said.

Agustin Orci, deputy superintendent of instruction for the Clark County School District, said he was dismayed that programs helping students and teachers meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act were being pushed to the brink of extinction.

"It's a real tragedy that GEAR UP and other federal projects are going to be cut when the obvious lack of funding for No Child Left Behind remains," Orci said. "It's a contradiction in terms that has us all shaking our heads."

Keith Rheault, Nevada's superintendent of public instruction, said the state won an $11 million GEAR UP grant in 2001 to provide tutoring, mentoring and workshops to more than 3,000 seventh graders statewide, with half of the money set aside for college tuition assistance. About 2,000 of those students, now freshmen in high school, are in Clark County.

The program provides continued academic support and services through high school for the original group of seventh graders, with full scholarships at state universities and colleges promised to those who stick with the program and keep their grades up.

Additionally UNLV received annual federal grants of about $11 million each for the last several years to provide tutoring and other academic activities including GEAR UP, said Rebecca Mills, vice president for student life, whose office oversees the program. More than 10,000 students participate at six middle schools and seven high schools throughout the district.

UNLV is supposed to continue offering GEAR UP through 2008 but the president's announcement Monday could put that in jeopardy, Mills said.

Two other of UNLV's college preparatory programs serving several thousand at-risk and minority students, Upward Bound and Trio, are also slated to be axed under the president's plan, Mills said.

"We're investigating right now what the potential effect could be," Mills said this morning.

Rheault said it appears there is enough money remaining from the initial GEAR UP grant to continue the program for the original group of seventh graders and honor the promised scholarships, but no new students could be added.

In addition to GEAR UP, Nevada faces the potential loss of millions of additional education dollars, including $10 million a year for vocational programs. The president's budget calls for eliminating all federal funding for vocational education, $1.2 billion annually, and instead directing dollars to related high school programs.

But, Rheault said, there's no guarantee that individual states, districts and schools will keep vocational programs going once the limitations on those dollars are lifted.

"We want to have faith that people would honor the intent and keep those programs going but everyone's already pressed for funding and I imagine a lot of those dollars would be directed elsewhere out of necessity," Rheault said.

The impact of the president's proposed budget on Nevada is being calculated, Rheault said. Preliminary estimates suggest the Silver State will get a $3 million increase in aid for the poorest schools and cuts in funding for technology and grants for anti-drug programs. A "sizable jump" in special education funding is also anticipated, continuing a trend that began three years ago, Rheault said.

At Bridger Middle School in North Las Vegas, Principal Milana Winter said she has seen 200 students reap the rewards of participating in GEAR UP for the past two years. Last spring the school showed a more than 10 percent improvement in student performance on standardized tests, meeting the state and federal "adequate yearly progress" requirements for the first time in two years.

"GEAR UP was an important part of that," Winter said. "It's an integral part of our education program and I'm not going to let it slip away without a fight."

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., is also ready to fight, a spokesman for her office said Monday. Berkeley also opposed the president's cuts last year to drop-out prevention programs. The cost of programs such as GEAR UP is a sensible alternative to paying more money down the road when some failed students end up as incarcerated criminals, the spokesman said.

A spokesman for Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., said the congressman was reviewing the president's budget and evaluating whether any of the proposed cuts to education programs are redundant services available by other means. Porter, who serves on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is "passionate about protecting the safety and health of children" and will support programs toward that end, the spokesman said.

For Jeffrey Halter, who earns about $36,000 annually at Bridger Middle School in North Las Vegas teaching sixth grade mathematics, working for GEAR UP means boosting his take-home pay by several hundred dollars a month.

"That's an electric bill, that's a car payment," said Halter, a second-year teacher who has his master's degree in education.

GEAR UP is also a chance to spend an hour a day with eager students, Halter said.

"They're here because they want to be, not because they have to be," Halter said. "In some cases it's kids who know they're having difficulties in a particular area. Most of the time they know they're good already and want to be better."

Halter has 14 students in his GEAR UP tutorial, compared with as many as 36 students in his regular math classes.

"It makes my job a lot easier," Halter said.

Colleen Haggerty, also a second-year teacher, joined GEAR UP last year after an informational meeting where she was told the federal program would help pay her tuition for a graduate degree in education. But now, a year later, all she has received is a list of 10 classes at UNLV that she can take for free.

"They've eased way back on what they were promising," Haggerty said.

Although he has only been taking part in Bridger's after-school GEAR UP program for a few weeks, sixth grader Nicholas Carter said Monday he's already learned a lot. Halter has taught him some "good tips" for approaching tricky math problems as well as shortcuts for calculating percentages.

"I'm learning skills that will help me solve problems in other classes," Nicholas, 11, said.

His mother, Shari Carter, said GEAR UP provides her son with a safe after-school alternative to the two-mile walk home to a house that would be empty until she finished her own job.

"He's in a protected environment but it's also an academic environment," said Carter, who teaches in the district's Gifted and Talented Education program. "I don't want him sitting around doing nothing. This way he's always learning."

— Emily Richmond
Las Vegas Sun


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