- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A seven-year, $49 million project will try to raise the high school graduation rate in some of Alabama’s poorest counties and get more students to attend college.

Gov. Robert Bentley said Gear Up Alabama is critical to changing mostly rural counties across central Alabama that traditionally have more poverty and higher unemployment than the rest of the state.

“Education is the basis for the future growth of Alabama’s economy,” he said at a ceremony Friday with educators and others who are working on the project.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham is leading the project, which will involve nearly 9,200 students from grades 6-12 from 53 schools in 18 school systems. The U.S. Department of Education will put up $3.5 million a year. It will be matched by the project partners, including the state Department of Education, Alabama State University, Auburn University, the University of Alabama, the University of Montevallo and the Black Belt Community Foundation.

The school systems that will be helped by the project have an average graduation rate of 72 percent, compared to the statewide average of 80 percent. Nearly 28 percent of the residents of the area live in poverty, compared to a statewide rate of 18 percent.

Debbie Voltz, dean of UAB’s College of Education, and Larry Tyson, the primary investigator for the grant for UAB, said the project will work with students, parents and teachers to improve the graduation rate and get more of the Black Belt students in college. Tyson said it is different from the traditional one-year grant addressing a specific education problem because it will follow students from middle school through the first year of college, and it will take a holistic approach to improving student achievement.

Students will receive tutoring, summer help programs, visits to college campuses, financial planning lessons, and other assistance to instill in them the goal of attending college and then help them achieve that goal, the educators said.

In its grant application, UAB noted that many of the target students have parents who didn’t go to college, have never visited a college campus and haven’t saved money for college.

Bullock County Superintendent Keith Stewart said the program is taking on some of Alabama’s most challenging school systems and it will succeed if it shows students that college is within reach.

In addition to Bullock County, the participating school systems are Phenix City, Russell County, Macon County, Pike County, Montgomery County, Butler County, Dallas County, Selma, Lowndes County, Wilcox County, Demopolis, Choctaw County, Sumter County, Linden, Perry County, Hale County and Pickens County. Montgomery County, the largest county in the project, will have about 4,150 of the nearly 9,200 students being served.

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