GEAR UP Schools Honored at Schools To Watch

sunnymead STW

13 high performing schools were honored at the annual Schools to Watch Luncheon in Sacramento, two of which were California GEAR UP Vista Heights Middle School and Sunnymead Middle School.

To earn this designation, schools must complete an extensive application that is reviewed by middle grades experts. In order to retain the designation, each school is re-evaluated every three years. Schools must show they are academically excellent — these schools challenge all students to use their minds well. They are developmentally responsive — these schools are sensitive to the unique developmental challenges of early adolescence. They are socially equitable — these schools are democratic and fair, providing every student with high-quality teachers, resources, and supports.

“It’s significant that more than a third of the new honorees are from Riverside and San Bernardino counties” said Irvin Howard, co-director of Schools to Watch and a longtime educator specializing in the middle grades.

Besides Sunnymead, other Inland winners are Vista Heights Middle School in Moreno Valley (a California GEAR UP School), San Gorgonio Middle School in Beaumont, Curtis Middle School in San Bernardino and Serrano Middle School in Highland.

Having worked with these two schools for five years and seen the staff’s commitment to building a college going culture, I am gratified to see the recognition of  this effort rewarded. -Jon Sides, California GEAR UP Whole School Services Coach.

“What it shows is there are finally some schools in the Inland Empire that are making the cut,” said Howard, a professor emeritus of education at Cal State San Bernardino. “A lot of these schools that have made it have known about the criteria and have been working on it for a few years. We can’t just focus on academics,” he said. “We have to focus on the whole child.”

Since 2001, California GEAR UP has served as a member of the California Middle Grades Alliance (CMGA), a collaborative partnership of 10 organizations in support of high quality middle grades education.  The Schools to Watch program provides the opportunity to recognize and honor the outstanding work of schools and districts throughout California.  These Moreno Valley GEAR UP schools join the class of 2016 Schools to Watch that promote academic excellence and social equity for ALL students.    -Shelley Davis, Director California GEAR UP

The winning schools are meeting the challenge by putting kids on teams in which counselors and teachers help them with classes as well as family and personal issues.




Sparks Career Day Is College Culture

As part of the California GEAR UP grant, Sparks Middle School proudly hosted its annual Career Day on January 15th, 2016 with 20 different presenters. Some of the presenters were Sparks alumni and included police, chiropractors, NFL players, accountants, engineers, and EMT’s. Serving over 475 students, every 7th and 8th grader heard four different presenters share about their careers and professions. As part of Sparks College Campaign, they want all students to “Own Their Future.” All students are encouraged to “Dress for Success” wearing ties, slacks, dresses, and other nice clothing. A tie station was set up in the morning with ties that have been donated, giving students the option to wear and keep a tie of their choice.

Sparks truly is a special place.  Our staff members share the belief that “success is the only option” for all students.  Our initiatives focus on the student both academically and socially.  Our programs encourage students to grow as individuals as well as to further develop life skills through collaboration.  Since becoming a California GEAR UP middle school, we have transformed dreams into attainable goals, ideas into action, and created hands on experiences for our students and parents to better understand college and career pathways.  We continue to build relationships with our parents as partners encouraging them to be a part of programs including PIQE, Kindle Family Literacy, and our Cooking class.  Within the last 4 years, over 400 parents have graduated from PIQE, twelve $2,000 California GEAR UP Education Trust Awards have been given out, and our LEAD (Life Experiences About Democracy) program earned a Civic Learning Award.  We look forward to what our future holds.

-Collin Miller, Sparks Middle School Principal

During the workshops, students took notes, asked questions, and reflected on their experiences. The presenters came from all different backgrounds and professions with a clear message that with hard work, determination, and motivation, all students can follow their dreams by setting goals and having a positive attitude. Students were encouraged to continue pursuing their interests with the help of all Sparks Spartan staff. Closure to the day included an assembly that highlights “Success Is the Only Option” for all students and that planning for their future starts now. District and city officials were the honored guests at this event and had an opportunity to see the day in action.

With a continued focus of enhancing school culture, Sparks is completing another year with the California GEAR UP grant. As one of the few schools in the state selected for this program, benefits have included a parent program called PIQE (98 parent graduates last year), a full time Whole School Services Coach, professional development opportunities, and additional college resources and programs, and 5 student awards being offered in the amount of $2,000 each last year.

Sparks has made a huge shift in their college going culture in their collaboration with GEAR UP. Sparks staff have organized themselves through their leadership team to continuously conduct a critical analysis of Sparks’ strengths and weaknesses that is open and honest with a look towards equity and providing high quality education for ALL students.  Sparks is also looking towards the future, both at their own growth and the growth of their community.  By visiting other schools and offering their own school site as a model, Sparks seeks not only to learn and implement best practices, but also to share their lessons learned with other struggling communities.  Sparks has created a college-going ecosystem that transcends their school boundaries and I believe they will be able to sustain the gains they have made through GEAR UP into the far future.

–Karla Lagunas-GEAR  UP Whole School Services Coach.

Additional College Campaign highlights include every classroom adopting a college, college spirit days every Thursday, and a college awareness campaign promoted in the cafeteria. For more information please visit our website

For mor information on California GEAR UP school success stories, visit