How Utah Aims to Equalize the Academic Disparity Between Have's and Have-not's

05/23/2012 03:13 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

Americans take great pride in the promise reflected in our Declaration of Independence -- the equal right to the pursuit of happiness for all persons. And we would rather not talk about the impact of socioeconomic status on our paths to happiness and success. But make no mistake: The impact of social class is stark. Even in the state of Utah, where student academic achievement surpasses that of many other states, income status is mirrored in academic outcomes.

Like the rest of the country, the State of Utah is undergoing demographic transformation that is having a massive impact on the educational system. As one of the youngest states in population age, the state's educators are faced with an increasing number of new students with limited English-speaking abilities and different cultural and religious beliefs. As members of historically underrepresented groups, these students are overrepresented among the lower socioeconomic classes. Their parents often have low educational attainment levels. As a result, the number of low income schools where at least 50 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch is growing. Schools are imploding with the consequence of these changing demographics. Perhaps more than ever before in our nation's history, ensuring a quality education, and the contingencies thereof, is increasingly challenging.

As of 2011, the gap between low and non-low income schools among Utah's seventh graders is 27 percent in mathematics, 37 percent in science, and 24 percent in language arts in terms of meeting state proficiency standards. Among high school students, where the population numbers are already dwindled by dropout rates disproportionally effecting nonwhite students, there is an average 17 percent gap between low and non-low income schools in meeting state proficiency standards. The impact of this performance gap is especially troublesome when one considers that, in some low income schools, the percentage of students who do meet proficiency standards is only 17 percent in mathematics, 6 percent in science, and 29 percent Language Arts.

As the land grant university of the state, charged with providing accessible education to all its citizens, Utah State University (USU) formed a strategic partnership to address these challenges and developed a proposal for a federal GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. GEAR UP was authorized by Title IV of the 1998 Amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) and was signed into public law in 1998 by President Clinton. Our program, entitled the STARS! GEAR UP Partnership was funded in April, 2012. The STARS! Partnership consists of 11 schools, key university units, and several state and national organizations. In each school, 50 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The project will serve 2,793 students in the Intermountain Region, from middle school through high school graduation and into their first year in college.

The acronym STARS! refers to our focus on development of Science, Technology, Arithmetic, and Reading skills for students and teachers. It also refers to our concentration on enhancing and/or developing students' cultural pride. Our goal is that the STARS! GEAR UP Partnership will significantly increase the number of low-income students preparing for, enrolling in, and completing a postsecondary program. Our vision is that: First, all students will be prepared to enter into and succeed in higher education; Second, all partner schools will develop an environment that values and respects students of all backgrounds; and Third, all students will see themselves as future leaders and engaged citizens of their communities. A further, ambitious, goal is that, through our success, our program of student achievement and cultural pride will serve as a model for other schools in our country's time of demographic transformation.

As reflected in our vision, it takes more than academic rigor to prepare students for college. Students' achievement requires self and cultural pride, and confidence that they will succeed, and feel like they belong, in college. Such a mindset is affected by messages from parents, teachers, school counselors and administrators, and community members. In addition to focusing on academic skills, therefore, our project includes teacher workshops centered on knowledge of and respect for different cultures. This information will be provided by the representatives from the Ute Indian Tribe, USU professors who focus on multicultural education, and the USU Student Access and Diversity Center. The latter, as well as our national community partners, will also develop parent workshops that provide information on academic requirements for college admissions and financial aid. All project members will be expected to help us transform schools into places where every child is seen as a future college student, and all the implications thereof.