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Gearing Up for the Future

Marymount program with Arlington schools exposes teens to academic, career options.

With just one sentence, Scott Carnicom accomplished the seemingly impossible. “The brains are already in their trays,” he said, instantly capturing the attention of some two-dozen middle school students stuck inside on a warm, sunny summer day.

Keeping students focused on education through the summer can be difficult, but Carnicom, an assistant psychology professor at Marymount University, helps do just that through the GEAR UP program. For the last three years, professors and students at Marymount have teamed up with Arlington Public Schools’ “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs,” designed to help middle school students begin planning for college and careers before they reach high school. Teachers and administrators at each of Arlington’s five middle schools select students for the program. They give preference to students who would be the first generation of their families to attend college.

“These programs are offered to kids who otherwise would not have any tutoring, or any support of that kind,” said Ingrid Chavez, a Marymount undergraduate student who works with GEAR UP students throughout the year. “My job is to provide assistance to the kids in their school work, or really anything.”

That means tutors and others in the program build a rapport with students that translates into academic improvement. “I’ve seen grades go from Ds to Cs, and Cs to Bs,” said Chavez. “I’ve seen kids who can’t read learn to read.”

THROUGHOUT THE SCHOOL year, tutors like Chavez help students set goals, develop plans and stick to the program. In the summer, Marymount professors volunteer their time for a series of lessons, field trips and activities designed to expose students to various careers.

Arlington students spent the week of June 23-27 on campus learning about arts and sciences, business administration, health professions and education and human services. By focusing on a different field each day, the program encourages students to think beyond the narrow career paths they may be used to seeing.

“By planting the seed early, it gets them thinking about the future,” said Tamara Davis, assistant professor of psychology, who directs Marymount’s portion of GEAR UP.

Federal funding from a Department of Education grant covers the costs of the program, but the grant will expire after one more year. “I think it’s a really valuable program, and it would be great if it can continue,” said Davis. But she won’t be around to file for a renewal of the grant – after next year she plans to focus on her scholarly work.

Others in the program are hoping to see GEAR UP continue as well. “It gives [students] something to look forward to,” said Julia Taylor, a Marymount graduate student now in her second year working with the GEAR UP program.

Working with students in their early teens, an age group that rarely plans beyond the next day, GEAR UP succeeds by making the future seem exciting, Taylor said. “The kids come in with so much enthusiasm, and they leave more enthusiastic about going to college.”

CARNICOM’S DEMONSTRATION of brain structure fit the bill. After listening to a brief lecture on lab safety, students worked in groups to dissect and identify parts of sheep brains. “It’s fun because you get to dissect and take things apart,” said Shoney Nazarkulov, who will be in eighth grade at Gunston Middle School next year.

“I liked the brain,” said Tanya Forrester, a Kenmore Middle School eighth grader. “It was exciting.”

Others had a more visceral reaction. “They’re all wet and squishy,” said Adrian Claros, who is entering ninth grade at Washington-Lee High School next year. Claros completed this program last summer and came back this year to serve as a student mentor, in what school officials call the Junior Ambassador Program. GEAR UP got him to focus on school and careers, Claros said. Now he wants to become a doctor or a computer engineer.

It’s not uncommon for students to come out of the program with a range of goals. Nina Hymes, a Gunston graduate entering Wakefield next year, enjoys English class, but wants to learn about careers in business, since GEAR UP’s business administration day at Marymount. Hymes describes the program as “fun, interesting, and educational.”

That’s a fairly accurate summary of what GEAR UP is supposed to be. But if the program has a central message for students, it may be what Davis continued to remind students during last month’s activities: “You always have options.”