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If you run an effective college readiness program and were banking on crucial federal funding that failed to come through, do whatever you can to keep the program afloat because you never know when things might turn around.

That's a lesson that college administrators and youth agency workers at Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP learned recently after going through a rough year of no federal funding that nearly killed the program, which primarily serves children in foster care.

The Kansas GEAR UP program is one of the largest of dozens of such programs funded under U.S. Department of Education's GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) - a discretionary grant fund designed to increase the number of low-income students prepared to attend and succeed in college by providing academic help and scholarships. The program is funded with $313.2 million for fiscal 2009.

The trouble for Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP began in 2007 when - despite being considered a "high-quality" applicant by the U.S. Department of Education - it failed to win renewal of a federal GEAR UP grant that had been providing the program with $2.5 million a year for six years. The state had provided matching funds, giving the program an operating budget of $5 million a year.

This past school year, however, when the federal funding stopped, administrators at Wichita State University made a critical decision to keep Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP alive with $160,000 in "one-time dollars" from the university, which oversees the program. The program had $300,000 in carryover funds from a previous year, bringing the total operating funds to $460,000.

With less than 10 percent of its usual annual operating budget, the program scaled back and relied on a skeleton crew, hopeful that new money would become available.

 "We felt that if we could keep this program afloat, if there were new dollars, then we thought we had a good chance," said Ronald Kopita, retiring Wichita State vice president for campus life and university relations. "Frankly, I think that impressed some of the folks in Washington."

Indeed, sticking around paid off in a major way earlier this year when the U.S. Department of Education unexpectedly discovered it had $9.79 million left over after covering continuation grants for other programs.  Rather than spend money on a new peer review process, the department decided to select new grantees from existing applicants, including Wichita State University.

This school year, the university will be getting $3 million a year in federal GEAR UP money and the same amount in matching funds from the state over the next seven years, for a total of $42 million.

The other four new grantees are: San Diego State University; Chama Valley Independent School District in New Mexico; the School District of Philadelphia; and Rancho Santiago Community College District in California. The U.S. Department of Education is expected to announce the grantees formally this week.

Focusing on Foster Children

The Kansas program's focus on foster children is unique.  If it had ended, it would have been an acute loss to those foster children at a time when there is growing national support to increase the number of youths who enroll in college and earn a degree that leads to a good-paying job.

Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP was already making good headway in that area - at least in terms of college enrollment. According to figures provided by pr

ogram officials to Youth Today, of the 819 graduating seniors served during the first six years that it received federal GEAR UP funding, 449 are currently in college -- an impressive figure given the fact that, historically,
between 1 percent and 11 percent of all foster children go on to college.

The Kansas program serves 2,500 foster children from kindergarten through 12th grade each year.

Students in the Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP program get a range of services from homework help and tutoring to workshops that focus on the college admissions process, including assistance filling out college applications and financial aid forms and preparation for the ACT.  There are also scholarships to cover their tuition, fees, books, and room and board. The scholarships are "portable" so students can use the scholarships anywhere in the United States.

In Kansas, the program partners with about 60 organizations, including the Boys & Girls Club of South Central Kansas and College Goal Sunday, a program recently adopted by the YMCA that provides free assistance to students on filling out their financial aid forms for college.

Off the streets, into to college

Asked how crucial Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP is in terms of helping Kansas's foster children get on a college campus, a youth worker at one of the largest nonprofit child welfare agencies in Kansas rated it as an "8 to 9" on a scale of 1 to 10.

"They are constantly at our buildings, sending e-mails and fliers out to our buildings, letting us know what's available - workshops, college tours and things of that nature," said  Heather Goolsby, life skills and independent living worker in the Clinical Services Department at Youthville, an agency whose children get regular help from workers at the Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP Program.

Corinne Nilsen, statewide director of  Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP, says the program has helped make college a reality for youths who might not have otherwise gone. For example, she said, several years ago, police found a 14-year-old girl living on the streets after having been kicked out of the house by her drug-addicted mother. The girl was put into a youth shelter and a foster home, but ran away from both. She was then put in a girls foster home, where she met a GEAR UP counselor.

"They started talking to her about her future and the fact that she couldn't live on the streets in the future," Nilsen says. "Now, she is a junior at the University of Arkansas studying the social sciences."

 Jamaal Abdul-Alim covers College & Careers under a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He can be reached at