GEAR UP: Grant Gives Laurens County Students a Boost in College Readiness

Two school districts in Laurens County, along with districts in Richland and Calhoun Counties, are in the 3rd year of a 7-year college readiness federal grant called Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs—or GEAR UP. The program aims to increase college readiness among low-income students, whose parents may be less familiar with the process of getting their children ready for and into college, so participating schools work with families, not just students.

GEAR UP uses a cohort model, following the same group of students starting from 7th grade until they make the transition to college, whether they’re pursuing a 2-year technical degree or a 4-year bachelor’s degree.

Each school in the partnership has a college support specialist who serves as the point person for parents, students, teachers, and administrators—and additional support for overloaded guidance counselors. In Laurens District 55, there are two: Kimberly Dunlap, who had previously served as career development facilitator at Sanders Middle School, and Gary Bagley, who had been a classroom teacher. Dunlap says that as a mom who had just gotten her first child off to college, she had been through the process of school visits, applications, and the dreaded FAFSA, and it was that personal experience, combined with her professional experience, that made her an ideal fit.

The cohort that started out as 7th graders are now in the 9th grade—the class of 2020—and with two years of specific college readiness focus before getting to high school, these students are well ahead of their peers in comparable schools with a high proportion of low-income students. In terms of measurement, though, Dunlap says the cohort won’t be compared to state averages or even schools with a similar demographic makeup—the control group that they’ll be measured against is the class right ahead of theirs, the class of 2019.


Laurens 55 GEAR UP has three specific goals:


  1. Improve academic achievement and performance
  2. Increase the number of students graduating from high school and enrolling in postsecondary education
  3. Increase student and family knowledge about academic requirements for college, the cost of college, and available financial aid and assistance.

Academic achievement includes making sure they take the classes they’ll need to get into college, preparing for college entry tests, and attendance. For a variety of reasons, attendance is always an issue, so finding ways to motivate students to actually be in school every day is an important first step in raising achievement levels. Individualized academic counseling and tutoring are also crucial to the success of the program.

Last summer, GEAR UP Laurens provided pre-algebra camps to prepare students for algebra I in 9th grade. Since four years of high school math are required for college entrance, it can be a roadblock if students get behind.

College visits for all GEAR UP students are fully paid for by the grant money, and Dunlap says that at this point only a handful of South Carolina colleges and universities have not been visited. “One extra thing we’ve adopted is cultural events [a requirement for honors English classes]. Many don’t know where to do that and don’t have access,” she says, “so we’ll add them on to college visits.” For example, a visit to Furman University was planned so that students could see a performance of Romeo and Juliet on campus.

For parents, workshops are offered with guest speakers on topics relating to the college entrance process. The grant pays for these workshops, but they are open to all parents, not just the GEAR UP cohort.  

“I email parents all the time with anything college-related,” Dunlap says. “I try to have a very good relationship with parents, get to know them. I get phone calls from parents on a daily basis.”

Since the grant money is finite, it’s important for Dunlap and the other college support specialists to look for areas where what they’re doing will be sustainable beyond the grant and for more than one cohort of students. She points to mentoring, college visits before high school, and parent workshops as things that can be sustained without outside funding to continue expanding educational opportunities for Laurens County students.

All photos courtesy of Laurens 55 GEAR UP.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at