Yale-Bridgeport GEAR UP partnership opens doors for promising students

This summer, over 70 Bridgeport high school students spent three weeks at Yale experiencing a taste of college life through GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), which aims to significantly increase the number of low-income and minority students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education.

The national GEAR UP initiative was launched in 1999 with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. The department has noted that today, more than ever before, “education is the fault line between those who will prosper in the new economy and those who will not. To prepare young people for the world of personal and professional choices in the 21st century, we must open the doors of college to all Americans.”

The Yale-Bridgeport GEAR UP partnership, which began in 2008, targeted more than 1,500 students enrolled in Bridgeport’s 19 middle schools, and has followed them through high school and into their freshman year of college. In 2011, the Yale was awarded a second GEAR UP grant targeting 1,700 Bridgeport students who will graduate in 2017.

Yale only GEAR UP Ivy

In fact, Yale is the only Ivy in the country that houses a GEAR UP initiative. This year marked the first GEAR UP summer residential program on Yale’s campus.

Nadia Ward, assistant professor of psychiatry (psychology) in the School of Medicine, is the principal investigator of this $14 million initiative.

“For decades, the college-going rate and the college completion rate for lower-income students has lagged behind the rates for students from higher income families,” says Ward. “For our students, learning how to navigate through the college planning process is challenging.

“Talking to low-income students about how to get into college isn’t enough — they need to experience college,” she continues. “The residential summer program profoundly impacted our GEAR UP students in positive ways. Their experience on Yale campus connected the GEAR UP message to the experience of living in a college dormitory and being exposed to the privileges that come with attending a world-class Ivy league institution. Our students felt they belonged here among the best and the brightest students in the world. These students returned to their respective high schools with a sense of pride and accomplishment, eager to start the new school year on track.”

Throughout the school year, GEAR UP offers students an array of academic enrichment programs such as tutoring, mentoring, academic advising, social-development programming, college tours, educational excursions, and after-school and Saturday activities.

A key component of the GEAR UP program is the role of the junior mentors who support the 10th-grade cohort.

Latisha Billups, an 18-year-old who has been part of GEAR UP since she was in 7th grade, wanted to give back to her fellow classmates. This summer, she decided to become a junior adviser.

“GEAR UP has done so much for me,” she said. “Personally, I was really excited about the experience for these kids because who has the opportunity to live at Yale for three weeks?”

Billups, admittedly, has a tough job that doesn’t see results in a day.

“To really reach these kids, it’s all about connecting with them, being proactive, and you have to keep pushing. You have to have that will power to keep at it, because every day isn’t a success,” she added, noting that several of the students come from broken homes and frustrating foster care systems.

GEAR UP junior advisers, like Billups, are specially trained to stay not only on top of their students’ academics, but also their lives outside of school. Junior advisers consistently remind their students of the life lessons their parents or guardians may not have taught them, such as: Grades aren’t everything. Stay on top of things and get involved. No college wants just a straight ‘A’ student; they want someone to put themselves out there with clubs and activities.

This summer, the Bridgeport students had a packed schedule aimed at emulating the life of a typical Yale college freshman. Each day included rigorous academics, ranging from physics to ecology, deadline-driven group work, along with conversations about controversial issues and current events. Students visited with health professionals from Yale Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health, the assistant director of the Yale Admissions Office, the dean of the Asian American Cultural Center, and Yale interns from Sikorsky to discuss their college and career experiences.  

They also took field trips to notable sights in and about Yale, including the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Yale Sustainable Garden and Farm, and Yale-New Haven Hospital.

“To see our students navigate the college campus with ease and confidence was truly inspiring,” said Ward. “Summer residential programs are critically important to urban students as they expose them to an array of experiences they would otherwise not have. For the first time, many of our students engaged in canoeing, horseback riding, hiking, and bicycling in New Haven’s beautiful parks and recreation areas.”

College aspirations

Current statistics state that only 15% of Bridgeport residents have a college education.

“Towards the end [of the summer program], I got questions about college,” Billups said. “That means they were thinking about it. I would tell them, ‘You guys don’t know what’s in store for you yet; you have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes to you, especially in GEAR UP, because that’s how I got to college myself.’ This program will do so much for the class of 2017. These students understand how serious school is, which is so important for the Bridgeport community.”

Katerina Vlahos, whose daughter participated in the Yale summer program, was impressed by how effective the curriculum was in reaching her child.

“She would come home excited to tell her little brother, who is 11, all about the program. At the end, she said to me I think I can do this. … She gave me a list of eight colleges she wants to apply to,” said Vlahos.

Vlahos had the opportunity to speak at Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet in Bridgeport Sept. 26 as part of a National GEAR UP Week celebration. Another special guest stopped by that day as well, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, who spoke to a room packed with 150 students about being the youngest member of Congress and the many road blocks he overcame in his journey.

Elvis Santiago, a 10th-grade biotech zoology student, said the senator had quite an impact on him.

"I learned that Chris Murphy did not give up on his dream to be a senator even though many people told him he could not do it. It was eye opening because even when people tell you that you can't be what you want to be, you can prove them wrong like Senator Murphy did. He made me believe in my dreams!” he noted.

For more information about the Yale-Bridgeport GEAR UP Partnership, visit http://yale-bridgeportgearup.org.

To watch a YouTube video of Senator Murphy Speaking in Bridgeport and other video clips, visit the program’s webpage: http://yale-bridgeportgearup.org/content/photos-and-videos

The Yale-Bridgeport GEAR UP partnership project

The GEAR UP partnership between Yale School of Medicine and the Bridgeport public schools aims to foster students' development of critical academic and social skills and to increase educational aspirations in a way that will enable them to graduate from high school prepared and ready to succeed in college.


Toward that end, the program works to improve students’ academic performance and preparation for post-secondary education; raise graduation rates and entry into post-secondary education; and expand students’ and their families’ knowledge of post-secondary education options, preparation, and financing.

The Yale-Bridgeport GEAR UP partnership helps achieve these goals through:

• Targeted interventions for teachers designed to improve the quality of math and English instruction for middle and high school students. Training involves in-service programs; classroom embedded coaching; professional learning communities; and summer institutes for middle and high school math and English teachers. 

Professional development for guidance counselors, including training in principles and best practices of positive youth development to support the establishment of youth-driven leadership and mentoring programs for adolescents. Counselors also participate in training to design, implement, and manage effective transition programs between middle and high school, and between high school and college.  Professional development opportunities for teachers and counselors continue as students enter high school and throughout the full term of the Yale-Bridgeport GEAR UP partnership.

Academic enrichment and support programs, including classroom-based instruction in affective education; small group workshops; and individual academic advising. Students have access to an array of college and career awareness workshops; college tours (local and out-of-state); and tutoring, mentoring, and accelerated summer learning experiences. All GEAR UP students are assigned academic advisers who support and guide them through critical school transitions. The adviser, — in collaboration with the student, school staff and parent(s) —develops an academic progress plan that is monitored each report period to increase students’ accountability for their academic success. See the diagram below for the eight domains of student activities provided by GEAR UP.

• Tutoring and mentoring services. Tutoring services range from classroom-based instruction, to small work groups, to individualized support. Individual and small group tutoring sessions are extended to all GEAR UP students. Tutoring sessions are held in school and after school hours. In addition, high school and college students mentor GEAR UP students in order to foster positive peer relationships, provide support and role modeling, and expose students to college life and potential career opportunities. The Ignition Mentor Society matches high school juniors and seniors trained as peer mentors with GEAR UP freshmen to help ease their transition into high school.

High-quality college preparatory tools, which are available to assist families in navigating the college planning process and in supporting their children. Services to parents include workshops on college planning and preparation, understanding financial aid options, and managing important school transitions. Parents are invited to participate in academic advising sessions as well as college tours and fairs with their children to increase their understanding of the college planning process and its critical connection to the world of work.