FARMINGTON – The University of Maine at Farmington is once again participating in a federally funded program to prepare interested middle and high school students for post-secondary education and to address the teacher shortage in Maine.

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded $4.06 million annually over seven years to the University of Maine System for the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, and Maine RISE program. The award was announced Sept. 26 by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden.

GEAR UP Maine is run by the University of Maine at Farmington and the nonprofit Syntiro, with 53 school partners in Franklin, Oxford, Kennebec, Somerset, Aroostook, Hancock and Washington counties.

As a result of a cut in funding, 2022 and 2023 graduates did not receive assistance in the GEAR UP program. Debbie Gilmer, Syntiro executive director​ and GEAR UP Maine project director, said UMF and Syntiro had to fight for an extension to continue to assist 2021 graduates into their first year of college.

“Ultimately, we want all students to be well prepared and have equity in their experiences so that when they consider post secondary education, they are well prepared and can be successful once they actually arrive on a college campus,” Katherine Yardley, associate provost and dean of education at UMF, said.

She said UMF will work with education technicians and teachers in bolstering their resources, particularly in mathematics, and she hopes to help address the shortage of teachers in Maine.

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“All of us in higher education, who are preparing teachers, are very concerned about the shortage of highly qualified educators,” Yardley said.

UMF will work with high school students interested in a career in education and provide them a pathway for those programs in post-secondary education.

The university also will bring back summer programming for high school students. That programming was limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have a couple of faculty leaders who are very interested in serving students,” Yardley said, “and they created programming with academic classes, opportunities to be outside in nature, getting a sense of place, developing skills and collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and giving them a real solid college experience as high school students.”

GEAR UP Maine began in 1998 and has served more than 29,000 students since 2007.

Over the next seven years, it will enroll a cohort of seventh graders, specifically targeting economically disadvantaged students in rural communities, and follow them through to their first year of post-secondary experience. The program will provide resources to help students increase their academic performance in preparation for postsecondary education and provide information about postsecondary education options, preparation and financing to the students and their families.

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The program also provides similar assistance to 11th and 12th graders, helping them with financial workshops, campus tours and even scholar coaching.

“We learned through some research in the last grant the value of what we’re calling scholar coaching,” Gilmer said. “So we provide to 11th and 12th graders a one-to-one relationship with a scholar coach, who sees that student through their senior year and all the kinds of things that senior is responsible for, like college applications.”

Gilmer projects the program will serve up to 5,600 students over seven years, specifically targeting districts in Somerset, Franklin, Aroostook, Washington, northern Penobscot, and Piscataquis counties. “So districts that are small, rural, and lack a lot of resources that other school districts have to prepare and support students for college and careers,” she said.

Emma Hixon of Aroostook County is an example of how the program is able to help students in rural communities. A senior at UMF majoring in elementary education with a concentration in social studies, she is doing her advanced practicum in second grade at Readfield Elementary School and will do her student teaching in the spring.

“The classes I took with GEAR UP were educational and interactive in a way that engaged my interest,” Hixon said. “I even used the writing I had begun during my time with GEAR UP as my UMF application essay.”

She intends to return to Aroostook County to teach, incorporating social emotional learning as well as agriculture in the classroom, finding those aspects important for child development.

“My time with GEAR UP gave me a look into what the college experience is like that I would not have had otherwise,” Hixon said. “It helped me prepare for dorm life, which was a big worry of mine at the time. It also helped me realize I definitely wanted to attend college and have access to the opportunities that brings.”

The previous round of grant funding followed students from 2014 all the way to and including the graduates of 2021.

“We are incredibly pleased to have GEAR UP funded in Maine again,” Gilmer said. “This multimillion dollar investment in youth from Maine’s most rural and economically disadvantaged communities, including a GEAR UP scholarship program, will help address the inequities facing rural students, their families and their communities.”


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