Class of 2006 gets a helping hand from Gear Up

When eighth-grader Jenny Dixon has a bad day, she doesn't despair or give up.

She seeks her mentor, Kingman High School senior Trina Fraka.

"It helps me to talk to her.

She is always there for me," Dixon, a Kingman Junior High School student, said of Fraka.

"My grades in math and science have improved since she became my mentor at the beginning of the school year," Dixon added.

"I used to hate school before I got mentoring.

The mentors push us through.

They believe in us."

Dixon's newfound optimism in education is why GEAR UP — Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — came into being.

A state and federally funded program established by Northern Arizona University and approved by the U.

S.

Department of Education, the Gear Up Program is designed to reduce the dropout rate and — starting when they are eighth-graders — increase students' chances of becoming successful college students.

Kingman Junior High School is one of 19 schools in Arizona to participate in the program, which will support this year's eighth-grade students until they graduate high school in 2006.

"All of our eighth-graders are automatically in the program from now until they graduate," said Joseph DeBaca, the Kingman Junior High School Gear Up coordinator.

"The goal is to encourage them to do well in school, and go on to college."

As a bonus, DeBaca said, the 2006 graduating seniors who participate in the program will receive money for college.

After-school tutoring and mentoring are just part of the program, which has a five-year budget of $38 million.

College awareness workshops, professional development workshops for teachers, counseling for students, the Summer Enrichment Program at the Northern Arizona University campus and a scholarship program all are intended to keep students involved in school.

When the estimated 6,000 Gear Up students graduate from high school in 2006, they will be eligible for $5 million in grant money set aside for scholarships, DeBaca added.

"We will loose these extra benefits next year when the students become ninth-graders and go on to South Campus," he said.

"But that is the purpose of the program — to follow this class all the way through."

NAU will help keep track of students' success in the program.

DeBaca said he has already taken a group of students on a tour of the NAU campus.

"It is something to spark their interest," he said.

"It lets them know that college is something they can aspire to.

It is a possibility."

Jaynell Chambers, the Gear Up student mentoring coordinator, said the program is working.

"We try to match them with an exceptional high school students who has been successful through their high school years," Chambers said.

The mentors also get something out of the program.

"I like being able to help someone and make their day better," Fraka said.

High school junior Crimson Agurlar, another mentor, said she never preaches to eighth-grader Michalle Hunter.

"We developed a friendship first.

We are not their parents, just someone to help them," Agurlar said.

"I would never lie to her.

I tell her what I have been through.

I hope she will learn from my mistakes."