U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s trip to Lufkin High School on Tuesday was a learning experience for the Texas Republican.
He wanted to speak with both educators and LHS graduates to discuss the impact of the GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) in Lufkin’s school district to help him become a better advocate for the initiative in the Senate.
And he couldn’t have picked a better place to come learn about GEAR UP. Over the past 20 years, nearly 3,000 Lufkin students have received more than $10 million from the competitive grant, which helps low-income and historically underrepresented students achieve college readiness, improve high school graduation rates and post-secondary enrollment rates, and raise awareness of post-secondary options among students and families. In October of 2018, the district received $5.95 million as part of the LETS (Linking Education to Success) GEAR UP grant for the fourth time over the past two decades.
Three 2017 Lufkin graduates — Ernesto Alvarado, Destine Denning and Isaac Montilla — each told Cornyn they didn’t know where they would be today without GEAR UP and the support and encouragement of LISD GEAR UP director Vickie Evans. Today, each is a college sophomore.
Barbara Davis, from Stephen F. Austin State University, has been involved with GEAR UP since its inception in 1999. She said GEAR UP increases students’ involvement in post-secondary programs significantly. “When you raise the bar, the students go way beyond whatever you expected of them,” she said.
Cornyn recently introduced legislation to improve the program by giving grant recipients increased flexibility to cater to local students’ needs, reducing the local cost share requirement from the current 100% to 50%, reducing administrative burdens for grant recipients and ensuring a more fair and competitive application process.
“I’ve become a real fan of your program the more I learn about it because it just makes sense,” Cornyn said. “I know resources are always short, so it’s always nice to get a little bit of additional funding. In this case, I think the federal government can play a really big role in making sure these GEAR UP funds are available to seventh-graders all the way through high school to help them prepare for their future.”
Cornyn then got a bit of hands-on experience with the assistance of eighth-grade GEAR UP student Zoe Davis and members of the LHS Inspire Club, who walked the lawmaker through several of the activities that will be held at the upcoming summer space camp. Some of those activities include student-coded Mars rovers on maps that are programed to tell facts as they land on landmarks, parachute projects that teach students about gravity and air resistance, and rockets that students propel into “planets” by a pressure launcher.
Cornyn thanked the district for the experience, calling it a ‘‘revelation.’’
“When I was in seventh-grade, I didn’t have a clue I needed a plan, much less actually having a plan,’’ he said. “It’s important for us to train our students to continue a lifetime of learning. That’s really the only way any of us are going to be able to keep up.”
He’s more right than most of us would like to acknowledge. Students in elementary school today are preparing for jobs that don’t even exist yet.