A big part of GEARing students UP on the road to college success is preparing them for college entrance exams and ensuring they are prepared for college-level work upon graduation. UTPA and Region One GEAR UP students are well on their way, thanks to the SureScore THEA Test Prep Academy and the College Academy Model.

Though they have different names, the story behind these academies and their goals are the same. UTPA GEAR UP’s SureScore THEA Test Prep Academy and Region One GEAR UP’s College Academy Model train high school teachers to teach the skills assessed by the THEA, ACCUPLACER and COMPASS/E-WRITE. These tests are required as part of the Texas Success Initiative mandated by the Texas Legislature. The TSI requires public colleges/universities to assess students’ readiness to perform successfully in college-level courses. High school graduates who fail these tests are required to take developmental courses before they are allowed to enroll in true college-level courses.

To date, over 150 Valley teachers have been trained to go back to their districts and conduct after-school and/or Saturday academies to prepare students for these tests. One of those teachers is Marcia Ziegler, who teaches English Language Arts at PSJA North High School. Ziegler and her school’s GEAR UP counselor planned to develop a THEA Academy, so when Region One GEAR UP Director Tina Atkins approached her about participating in the College Academy Model, Ziegler wasted no time accepting the offer. Students at PSJA North will attend a total of four four-hour Saturday academies spending two hours working on math, and one hour each on writing and reading.

“Once students complete the four Saturdays reviewing writing, reading and math, they should be prepared for the THEA,” Ziegler said. “If, however, they do not score high enough in any area to bypass remedial courses, they can focus on just the area they need to improve.”

GEAR UP students, tenth graders this year, attend the academies, thus making them eligible to take one of the placement tests. GEAR UP picks up the tab for the test so students who are unable to afford the fee are not left behind.

While increasing a student’s score on one of these placement tests is a respectable goal, these academies are working toward a much more substantial result. Students who score high enough on the test will attend the GEAR UP Summer College Program, where they will live in dorms and take concurrent enrollment courses, earning six hours of college credit. (Some students will commute each day to participate in the program.) They will also take an SAT/ACT prep course and participate in a testing/financial awareness workshop. While taking part in the program, students will have access to tutoring, mentoring, counseling and other services offered at the GEAR UP Command Center. These students will also be expected to enroll in Pre-AP and AP courses next school year.

This is a program designed to provide the maximum support a student needs to be successful as they move toward college. Thus, students whose scores fall below the minimum needed to earn concurrent enrollment credit will return to the test prep academies to sharpen their skills in the areas needing additional work so they can try again. In addition to the test-prep courses, they will also attend college awareness and career pathways seminars, financial aid/testing workshops and content area specific classes.

The SureScore THEA Test Prep Academy and the College Academy Model provide additional benefits to participating students, as well. “The TAKS tests only Algebra I and geometry skills,” said Ziegler. “But in THEA academies, students are also taught Algebra II and a little trigonometry.” This training benefits students when they take the ACT and SAT.

Communicating a college-going culture is an integral part of GEAR UP, and the test prep academies are a powerful tool. “In terms of college entrance exams, we have been preparing our students since they were in eighth grade,” said Dr. Martha Cantu, UTPA GEAR UP Director. That year, GEAR UP students took the ACT Explore, which predicts their scores on the ACT. Last year, the students took the Princeton Review Assessment, which includes question formats from both the ACT and SAT. This year, half of the students took the ACT PLAN and the other half took a Princeton Review SAT practice test.

The focus is not on the test itself but on scoring high enough to enroll in dual and concurrent enrollment courses and earn college credit while still in high school. Doing so allows the students to gain experience with rigorous coursework and prepares them for college. It’s about a sense of accomplishment, setting and meeting goals and stepping up to the challenge. It’s about a desire to succeed that makes a student get up on a Saturday morning and attend a four-hour academy.

“The students who have been coming are excited about the program and want to get ready to take college classes either in the summer or next year,” said Ziegler. “Some have recruited their friends to attend, as well.”

Now that’s motivation.