Mississippi State University was recently awarded a multi-million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education with the goal of developing schools across the state and increasing opportunities for postsecondary education.
The grant provides $27.9 million for distribution over seven years, and is a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs grant program, or the GEAR UP grant program. The goal of the program is to not only financially support low-income students as they prepare for college, but to implement different services to better facilitate teachers and administrators
MSU President Mark Keenum stated in a press release that the grant is of the utmost importance in developing Mississippi’s future leaders, and he is proud of the university’s influence on education throughout the state.
“Education will play a vital role in preparing Mississippi to be competitive for generations to come, which makes it critical that we do everything we can to expand access to all educational opportunities,” Keenum stated. “I am proud of MSU’s leadership in GEAR UP Mississippi and I would like to thank our congressional delegation for supporting our funding request. I look forward to seeing all the positive ways this initiative will impact our state.”
The GEAR UP program seeks to accommodate school districts throughout the state in many ways aside from direct funding. Teachers will be offered professional development opportunities and schools will begin to offer both in-school and after-school STEM programs to expose students to computer science early. Aside from school-based programs, the grant hopes to connect schools with their respective communities as well.
MSU has many partners assisting with the statewide implementation of the grant, including the MS Department of Education and the MS State Research and Curriculum Unit (RCU). Betsey Smith, director of the RCU and one of the principal investigators for the grant, said she believes the grant is a perfect fit for the state of Mississippi and the university. “MSU and the RCU have been partnered with the State Department of Education for over 50 years, so we have a good relationship with the school districts. GEAR UP was a good fit for our staff. It is something we are already doing in the state, so we are able to just use our resources,” Smith said.
The grant’s foremost purpose is providing services and funding to three target school districts throughout Mississippi in areas of high need. The districts include middle and high schools in the Greenville Public School District, the McComb Public School District and the Meridian Public School District. Within the first year of the grant, over 4,000 students throughout these districts will be provided with support.
According to Carol White, a professor in educational leadership at MSU and a co-principal investigator for the program, the process of choosing the targeted school districts involves not only looking at economic qualifications, but geography as well in order to make an actual statewide grant.
“The program starts with middle school students in high-need populations,” White said. “There was a priority for federally designated ‘opportunity zones’ or economic development zones. We put together a map and found all that qualified, so we started looking at geography. We didn’t want to have everything next to Mississippi State. We could do that, it would be easy, but we wanted to make sure there was good coverage across the state for the services to make it a truly statewide grant.”
The services and funding of the grant are scheduled to begin October 1, 2019.