Starting Up a College-Bound School Culture

GEAR UP district liaison Susie Williams and Superintendent Jessie King open up college pathways for middle schoolers in Mississippi’s Leland School District.

Middle school students at Leland School Park (LSP) achieved a remarkable one-hundred percent pass rate in eighth-grade Algebra. In a high school course often considered a gateway to opportunities in the booming science and tech industries, LSP eighth graders are surging ahead on a path to earn college math credits before their senior year of high school.

“Starting early in middle school has been a great opportunity for the Leland School District,” says Ms. Susie Williams, a former LSP Principal and current district Curriculum Director. “Our goal is to retool our district and to make sure that we fall into that college-going culture from Kindergarten to 12th Grade.”

Nationally only 24 percent of students take Algebra during middle school despite evidence that the course of study triggers a cascade of forward-stepping academic success.  Quoting a study in the American Secondary Education, the Washington Post reported that middle school Algebra students “stayed in the mathematics pipeline longer and attended college at greater rates” than similar students who took it in ninth grade.

Williams is the District Liaison for Mississippi Delta Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs also known as GEAR UP which has been credited for being a force for cultivating a college-bound mindset in students, like taking Algebra in middle school.  

GEAR UP Mississippi is a seven-year $15 million grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education that aims to increase the number of students prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. Housed on the campus of Delta State University, it serves over 2,700 students and their families each year. 

GEAR UP promotes early exposure. Young students get exposed to college and college-level preparation starting as early as sixth grade and are provided support through high school. Just last month, 22 LSP students toured Tougaloo College where they delved into the college’s role in propelling the Civil Rights Movement and learned about diverse pathways and requirements for admissions. 

Working with partners like the Foundation for Mid South, Williams, and Leland School District Superintendent Jessie King built the infrastructure to infuse college-going activities into everyday student life at Leland School Park. 

GEAR UP activities such as “Rep Your College” days, college tours, mentorship matchmaking, and guest speakers are regular opportunities for students to delve into various aspects of college life. Activities cover diverse topics, including requirements, degree options, tutorials, scholarships, financial aid, out-of-state opportunities, and more.

“It’s the first of its kind that will start with middle school students, and follow those students through graduation,” said Darron Edwards,  Associate Director of Programs for GEAR UP at the Foundation for Mid South. 

Learning Life-Long Skills Early 

College is where young people step into adulthood. The student-teacher paradigm changes as students leave the home, requiring young learners to have self-motivation for personal and intellectual growth. It’s not just about learning subjects. College hones critical thinking and problem-solving skills, giving students tools for real-life challenges beyond textbooks, and in preparation for life.

“With GEAR UP the students have an opportunity to expand their vision,” said Williams.

Teachers highlight valuable skills such as critical thinking, creativity, self-directed learning, and cross-industry communication, applicable from classroom to boardroom. 

GEAR UP has supported LSP efforts to blend academics with the social, emotional, and collaborative skills exercised in extracurricular activities. Two school days weekly are now dedicated to social and academic clubs, fostering well-rounded students with problem-solving abilities. 

“If we want not merely to improve but to maximize the college and career readiness of U.S. students, we need to intervene not only during high school but also before high school, in the upper elementary grades, and in middle school,” reads a recent report from ACT, an independent nonprofit focused on education and workforce development.

Parents, teachers, and school leaders credit student success in college readiness activities to campus culture fully invested in cultivating a “College-Bound” mindset. Williams, a 20-year public school veteran, says having high expectations, communication, exposure, and self-awareness-based discipline are also essential components. 

Student-led feedback and recommendations will drive GEAR UP activities at LSP in the upcoming year. LSP installed new monthly student-led Advisory Council and a two-day-a-week career exploration program in tech will launch soon. In line with the student input focus, LSP elected Dylan Wigfall and Coremera Pratt as the first Mr. and Mrs. GEAR UP, embodying the vibrant spirit of the academic community.

“We relish shaping a college-going culture from elementary onward,” said Williams. “Young people should learn about the multitude of career paths. If you have a direction and you can see yourself going down the right path, then you have a great chance of achieving the goals you set for yourself.”