- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - An education program whose name became synonymous with scandal in South Dakota last year is attempting a fresh start under new leadership.

Gear Up, a national program aimed at helping low-income students get to college, was run in the state by Mid-Central Education Cooperative until a murder-suicide last September left six people dead and spurred an investigation that uncovered more than $1 million in embezzled funds.

While three former program administrators await criminal trials, Black Hills State University is working to reboot the program, which focuses on Native American students.

Gear Up concludes a three-week high school summer program Friday after accepting close to 100 students, including 15-year-old Kianna Whirlwind Horse.

“Not only did I get to learn new things, but I got to meet new people, and they’re becoming more of a family than they are friends,” Whirlwind Horse told the Argus Leader newspaper (https://argusne.ws/296X1ks ).

Gear Up is looking to expand its reach in the state before students return to school in the fall by hiring coordinators at each of South Dakota’s public universities.

“For the most part we’re trying to put what happened in the past behind us,” Gear Up Co-Director June Apaza said. “We’re trying to let people know that it’s not a new program, but the program is under new management. It has a new structure.”

South Dakota first received federal funds for Gear Up in 2005. In 2011, the state again received a federal grant for the program for $24 million over seven years, according to Brett Arenz, federal liaison, Gear Up director and registered project director with the U.S. Department of Education.

Arenz took over the program late last fall, and after establishing a partnership with the Board of Regents, BHSU was named the lead institution in December.

Since then, the college has worked to restructure the program with a new staff and supports for the program throughout the state.

Twenty-three schools have signed partnership agreements with Gear Up, and another eight schools have made verbal commitments to the program. Overcoming the negative connotations with Gear Up has been a “little bit of an obstacle,” Apaza said.

“We’ve had a few schools who’ve said to us, ‘We want to wait a year and see how you do managing this program, and we’ll come on with you next year,’” Apaza said.

The restructured Gear Up program has structures in place to prevent future financial scandals. All funds are handled through the university’s sponsored program office.

“The sponsored program office is sort of the watchdog … in order for us to spend Gear Up funds, we have to run every expense through the grants office,” Apaza said, noting that the office is well-versed in complying with federal finance laws.

In the first summer under new leadership, Gear Up’s three-week summer program at BHSU had a retention of about 73 percent. Gear Up has also held two of its four planned summer camps for middle school students, which so far have had a combined attendance of around 50 students.

New Gear Up leaders are happy with the response they’ve seen, according to Co-Director Urla Marcus.

“We’ve gotten a lot of support and a lot of people wanting to help make sure that this continued,” Marcus said.

Continuing the program does not come without challenges, Marcus added, especially as new developments in the Gear Up cases surfaces.

“It seems like every time we have something so positive happening … something negative comes back in,” she said. “We’ve got to remember why we’re doing this. It’s up to us to keep this moving.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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