Message from the Executive Director

Teena New

Collaborative Impact:
Achieve60AZ Unites Leaders in a Transformational Goal 

By Teena Olszewski, Executive Director, Arizona GEAR UP

The word is out and it’s good news: Arizona leaders have now set an important goal to dramatically increase our state’s post-high school educational attainment rate, raising it from the current 42 percent to 60 percent by 2030! In just 14 years’ time, 18% more Arizona adults will hold a professional certificate, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or an even higher-level degree.

As we know, the social impact of education is significant. Reaching the 60 percent goal means we will have many more adults with increased earning potential and a better quality of life. We will also have a state that is better poised to meet its workforce needs and better able to attract and retain new business.

Arizona GEAR UP is proud to be among the 60+ (and growing) number of educational, community, business, and philanthropic organizations that have joined to form the Achieve60AZ Alliance, announced last week by Governor Ducey, as the community-led, statewide effort to support achievement of this critical new benchmark.

The goal itself is exciting. Even more impressive is the collaborative power of the shared goal to coalesce and focus efforts that will make this new standard of achievement reachable.

So, let’s delve a bit deeper. What does Achieve60AZ mean and why does it matter? I’ll use Arizona GEAR UP to illustrate broadly.

College access programs in Arizona are comprised of a wide-ranging constituency. Programs operate from within a multitude of organizational contexts, and employ different delivery models to see to it that more students (especially low-income, first-generation) are prepared for and enroll in some form of postsecondary education or training.

These college access programs, through their unique efforts and partnerships, are called on to reach three overarching objectives:

  • Increase college readiness
  • Increase high school graduation rates, and
  • Increase postsecondary enrollment rates.

Not surprisingly, these key focus areas are precisely what the Achieve60AZ initiative sees as essential to reaching the new attainment goal. It is also an area in which Arizona GEAR UP has consistently evidenced impressive results.

Arizona GEAR UP has exceeded – by large margins – the state’s graduation- and college-going rates among large cohorts of students from Arizona’s most at-risk schools and communities. GEAR UP raises the academic aspirations of entire cohorts of students beginning in seventh grade, and follows the cohorts through high school and into the first year of college. We create a college-going peer culture, where relationships are key and the notion of going to college starts as a dream, and becomes a plan. Because this approach ensures that all students in a particular grade are served, the program is a natural vehicle for systemic change.

GEAR UP is a complex mix of strategies and techniques, including curricular and instructional enhancements, teacher professional development, rigorous, advanced coursework and academic monitoring/intervention. GEAR UP works by promoting student motivation, knowledge, and skills through the use of a wide range of overlapping, research-based services and interventions, guided by systematic data-driven collaboration and planning.

In addition, GEAR UP’s legacy lives on, even when cohorts of GEAR UP students move on. We are proud to point to dozens of Arizona schools in which our work with a particular cohort is complete, yet innovations adopted during the GEAR UP program remain a strong presence on campus.

For 16 years, Northern Arizona University (NAU) has successfully administered Arizona GEAR UP as an effective college access program raising high school graduation- and college going-rates, and as a responsible steward of the federal funds that include a 1:1 match component. NAU has fostered GEAR UP engagement in multiple state collaborations and initiatives that have leveraged resources, built capacity, and supported systemic change related to college access and college-going goals from which more students, and future students benefit. Examples include collaborations like the Northern Arizona College Resource Center and College Depot, and initiatives like the College and Career Planning Guide and app for middle grades and the online training for College Access Professionals. GEAR UP’s legacy is also created in these kinds of outcomes, and underscores the importance of all sectors, including government, as partners.    

And this is why I am excited. Having a common attainment goal – and the indicators of measureable progress that go with it – invites college access programs collectively and access initiatives broadly to coalesce and focus efforts to ensure that our work contributes substantially and knowingly to advancing educational attainment in Arizona.

Finally, with many thanks to the Governor, we are also celebrating Arizona GEAR UP Week! The proclamation coincides with National GEAR UP Week 2016, commemorating the continuing success of GEAR UP across the country. All the best wishes and cheers to you, our school partners, in the many events you have planned this week to celebrate our students’ hard work and progress toward their postsecondary goals!