More Changes to FAFSA List

FAFSA list graphic

(from Inside Higher Ed)

States worry that a Department of Education plan to curtail their access to data from the federal student aid form will cause headaches for state aid awards.

The U.S. Department of Education is planning to further restrict how it shares information about students’ college preferences, but some state officials are concerned the changes will make it more difficult for them to award funds from state financial aid programs.

The department has already stopped providing colleges with the entire list of institutions that students express interest in attending when filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. That new policy, which took effect Jan. 1, was a response to concerns that students may have been disadvantaged by colleges knowing the other colleges to which a student was also applying (and where those institutions ranked on the student’s list.)

State agencies that award financial aid, however, continue to have access to the full list of colleges a student provides on the FAFSA, including the ordering of those institutions. But the Education Department now plans to change that, a department official confirmed in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

Starting on the FAFSA for the 2017-18 academic year, the department will stop providing state agencies with the order in which students list colleges, the official said. States will continue to receive the full list of colleges that students share on the application, but the Education Department will first randomize the ordering of the institutions.

State officials have found that students are most likely to attend the college they list first on the FAFSA. Many state agencies use that information to plan how much state financial aid money they expect to dole out. And others use the information to start packaging state financial aid awards.

The Education Department has previously acknowledged that states use the FAFSA lists for such purposes. The current FAFSA, for instance, warns students that “the order in which you list schools may affect your eligibility for state aid.”

Without access to the list of colleges students provide on the FAFSA, in the order listed by the student, state officials say they will be left in the dark about which students are planning to enroll at colleges for which they may be eligible for state aid.

The National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs sent a letter to the Obama administration last year urging officials to reconsider their plans.

“No longer providing states with the schools listed, or no longer providing the schools in the order listed by the student, is anticipated to have costly and confusing impacts to both states and students,” the group wrote (italics from the original).

In Pennsylvania, for instance, about 80 percent of state grant recipients attend their first-listed institution on the FAFSA, according to Keith New, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, known as PHEAA, which administers the program. For those students, PHEAA automatically calculates their state award — which ranges between roughly $100 and $4,000 — after receiving the information from the FAFSA.

New said if the Education Department curtails PHEAA’s access to students’ FAFSA list information, the agency would have to reach out to about 130,000 state college or university applicants rather than automatically calculating their awards.

“The burden will be placed on the students to provide the name of their school to us a second time. It’s certainly going to be a big communications issue and it would add complexity,” Keith said. “The potential is significant for students, especially those who may already be at risk, to fall through the cracks.”

Similarly, Tennessee officials said the department’s plan to randomize the FAFSA list would complicate how they dole out state awards, including the popular Tennessee Promise program, which allows students to attend community college without paying tuition.

Tim Phelps, associate executive director of the Tennessee Student Assistance Commission, said the state typically packages an award to the first institution that is eligible for state aid that a student provides on his or her FAFSA list.

Without access to the complete FAFSA list information, he said, the commission would have to wait until students directly provide them with the name of the colleges for which they are seeking state aid.

“It’s adding another barrier that students would have to cross, in order to continue to be eligible or to become eligible,” Phelps said of the department’s plan.

The department’s initial move to curtail colleges’ access to the FAFSA list was announced last August after concerns that some colleges were using the lists of colleges students provide on the FAFSA in ways that could harm students’ admissions or financial aid prospects.

“We had learned, from a number of places, that some schools — not most but more than we would like — use those data for purposes totally inappropriate, and in some cases, unlawful,” Jeff Baker, a department official, said at a federal financial aid conference last month. Inside Higher Ed reported in 2013 that some colleges were denying admission and possibly reducing financial aid to students based on the FAFSA information the department was sharing with colleges.

But state officials contend that their use of the FAFSA college list, by contrast, benefits students by streamlining the process for students to apply for state-based loans and grants.

“It tries to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Phelps of the Tennessee aid agency. “It really muddies the water for our programs.”

The FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year, for which these changes would take effect, will be published and available starting this Oct. 1 under the Obama administration’s new, earlier timeline for federal financial aid.

School Success Stories: Using Tech to Support Students

jefferson heartGUOne of our amazing schools, Jefferson Middle School, has a story to tell. We caught up with Darlene Pope, teacher and GEAR UP Leadership Team Member, who shared with us some of the technology she uses in her class to support her students and stay in touch with families.

Zoom video conferencing (and it gaining in popularity across many fields, not just education) is free up to 40 minutes, but I have a subscription. I meet every Wed evening in a virtual online face to face session with students and parents. I meet for an hour. I answer clarifying questions. I can have up to 20 people in my virtual meeting. We kind of look like the Brady Bunch. Check it out at
Remind is awesome. It is how I communicate with parents and students. This is how I alert parents their student has missed an assignment and how I send homework tasks to my classes. I can also text with students about homework. It is a free and digitally safe texting tool. I can even attach documents,
Darlene was considerate enough to sit down with us and answer more questions about how she uses these resources.
  1. Does the entire school use either of these tools? If not, how many teachers do?

No the entire school does not use these tools, but it takes time for it to catch on. However, about 10 teachers are using Remind and I have as a goal getting more on board. I am the only one experimenting with Zoom. I use it as a tool for student support and parent communication as well as conferencing. It allows me to share my desktop, record a session and have about 25 people in on a single conversation. Students pop in and out to ask a question and get clarification.  I can envision it as a way to flip a classroom or as a way to hold class in the event that class is canceled.

  1. How did you hear about them?

I learned about Zoom through my work with CTQ and the NEA. I facilitate online learning with cohorts of teachers who are designing and implementing teacher leadership projects. I learned about Remind from a teacher at our high school several years ago.

  1. What is the response from parents?

Parents love both of these tools. It provides them an easy way to stay in touch. Remind even has an translation feature! I can send a doc via Remind as well. Zoom allows me to see into the home environments of my students as well. They parents who use it are most appreciative.

  1. How many parents do you engage with each tool?

Remind about 90% of my students’ families. Zoom is a much smaller group. Probably only 15%, but this will increase as I modify my parent info presentation to include a demo of this.

We thank Darlene and all the awesome teachers at Jefferson for their forward thinking and deep passion for doing what it takes to ensure ALL students have access to a great education.

Will these resources and Darlene’s experience with them inspire you?


2015 California GEAR UP Program Update



The goal of the California GEAR UP Program is: 

To develop and sustain the organizational capacity of middle schools to prepare all students for high school and higher education through a systemic network of support for adults who influence middle school students, specifically their counselors, faculty, school leaders and families. This expanded capacity is expected to result in a higher proportion of students, particularly from backgrounds and communities that have not historically pursued a college education, enrolling and succeeding in higher education.

The ultimate outcome expected from this Program is that a higher proportion of students will be prepared to enroll and succeed in advanced courses in middle school and high school and enter and graduate with a degree from a higher educational institution.

This Program has three modes of services to support schools in reaching this goal:

  • direct service to a cohort of students through the Bridge for Students Model;
  • services to a cohort of middle schools through the Whole School Model; and,
  • services to all California middle schools through the Educational System Transformation Model.

Bridge for Students Model:

The Bridge for Students Model is characterized by collaboration, student progress tracking, and data sharing among a family of schools across educational levels in order to prepare all cohort students for college. The objective guiding this model is:

Objective 1: To Increase by 20 Percent the Number of Bridge Students Achieving at Grade-Appropriate Levels in Mathematics as Compared to the Respective 2010–11 Class at the School.

The first step in building this bridge occurred when 631 sixth graders at five elementary schools were introduced to a college-going culture in the 2010–11 year. Today, these students are tenth graders at Valley High School in the Elk Grove Unified School District and will graduate from this school in 2017, the final year of this grant cycle.

These high school students received research-supported, grade-appropriate services to enhance their opportunity for success, especially in mathematics, including:

  • individualized tutoring in Mathematics three or five days a week, depending on the course;
  • enrollment in Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) courses and Career Technical Pathways through Health Teach and Project Lead the Way;
  • field trips that expose students to various collegiate environments and careers;
  • support from GEAR UP staff to monitor student academic progress and facilitate success at the school;
  • career exploration with staff in areas of interest, job shadowing, and mentors in connected fields;
  • monthly workshops focused on college and career readiness;
  • collaboration with schools in the feeder pattern, local businesses, the Elk Grove School Unified School District, and Consumnes River College to offer more rigorous coursework, create a college-going culture, increase cross-articulation opportunities in Advanced Placement/Honors coursework, and support, place, and adopt Integrated Mathematics.

Whole School Model:

The Whole School Model is characterized by services, staff, and resources designed to create systemic change at a school site. This model is predicated on systemic change theory and research about effective learning communities that demonstrates the importance of planning time, the principal as an instructional leader, and the critical nature of using data to inform decision-making. The objective guiding this model is:

Objective 2: To Increase by Five Percent Each Year the Number of Students at the Participating GEAR UP Schools Who Are Performing at Grade-Appropriate Levels in Mathematics as Compared to the Performance of Students at These Schools in the 2010–11 Year.

In May of 2012, 48 low-income schools across the state were selected to participate in the Implementation Phase of this six-year grant cycle. A School Services Coach has been assigned to each school with the responsibility for assisting to coalesce a GEAR UP School Leadership Team composed of the principal, other school administrators, guidance counselors, teachers in core academic content areas, a parent, and a counselor.

In the fall of 2014, GEAR UP schools attended regional Principal and Leadership Team Institutes to provide opportunities to learn from each other and problem solve together about common concerns and issues. These events were customized to meet the needs of participating schools within each region and in alignment with focused areas of growth identified on the School Self-Assessment Rubric (SSAR) developed by the UCLA Graduate School of Education. The SSAR serves as a yardstick to assess school change over time and guide the development of a college-going culture at the school site. These Institutes were followed by Regional Events in spring 2015 focused on classroom practices for implementing Common Core State Standards, developing region-wide professional learning communities, and proactive whole school engagement to address instructional equity for ALL students.

GEAR UP schools in the cohort have continued to make progress with the implementation of the Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project (MDTP) on the Daskala online platform. This diagnostic test measures student readiness for mathematics courses ranging from Pre-Algebra to Calculus. During this year, GEAR UP Coaches and MDTP Directors have collaborated to monitor progress at the school site. This online tool provides teachers timely diagnostic data to identify specific topics and skills that need more attention, allows them to develop formative assessments, and informs and evaluates instruction and curricula to prepare students for success in mathematics courses needed for college and career readiness.

In October 2013, the Program launched a pilot project in partnership with College Board to implement SpringBoard — the Board’s college and career readiness program in English/Language Arts for grades 6-12.  The pilot is being conducted with four GEAR UP schools and includes teacher training, progress monitoring through classroom visitations, data collection, and critical understanding by schools of the nature of their learning and the reasons for doing so. Teachers have access to SpringBoard coaches, grade level seminars, and an online digital community for peer connection and support, including videos and instructional resources.

In May 2014, school principals observed teacher commitment to the depth and rigor of the college preparatory curriculum, and thereafter, the schools adopted the SpringBoard mathematics program school-wide. As a result of this pilot, the teachers from the SpringBoard ELA pilot and Mathematics program will be attending the SpringBoard Train-the-Trainer Conference where schools will send their most effective SpringBoard teachers and instructional coaches to become district-endorsed teachers. Other GEAR UP schools have expressed an interest in SpringBoard and will be participating beginning in the 2015-16 year.

 Education System Transformation Model:

An Educational System Transformation Model expands the program’s reach in promoting a college-going culture for all students and offers opportunities to impact the educational enterprise as a whole, albeit less intensively. The objective of this model is:

Objective 3: To Increase by Five Percent in Six Years the Number of Students in the State Completing Grade-Appropriate Mathematics Courses as Compared to 2010–11 Statewide Outcomes.

In July 2014, program staff met with California GEAR UP Partnership project staffs at the National Council for Community and Educational Partnerships (NCCEP) GEAR UP Conference in Washington, DC. The result of these meetings was the launching of the California Partnership Initiative.  Through this initiative, the California delegation met again in February 2015 at the NCCEP Capacity Building workshop with plans to meet at the 2015 National Conference.

Another activity undertaken through this model was the co-sponsoring of the Sixth Annual Professional Development Summit in Oakland in January 2015. This two-day event featured state and national leaders and educators to discuss the social justice agenda for African- American students.

Finally, GEAR UP strengthened its partnership with the California Academic Partnership Program (CAPP) — a State initiative to improve instruction in secondary schools through collaborative efforts involving higher education. CAPP funded an initiative this year that included four high schools to which GEAR UP middle schools matriculate students in order to sustain a college-going culture for those students, particularly in grades 10 and 11.


Transform Your Tax Refund Into Bright College Future

Now that tax season is upon us, use this time to review your college savings goals and take another look at your savings strategy. Saving now can make for a brighter future later. So, as you gather up your W2 and other tax-related materials, consider opening or making a contribution to a ScholarShare account. ScholarShare, California’s 529 College Savings Plan, can provide parents and relatives – anyone saving for a child’s college education – with valuable tax advantages.

Consider putting your tax refund to work in three simple ways:

  • Have the Franchise Tax Board deposit some or all of your state tax refund into your ScholarShare account;
  • Make a contribution electronically from your bank account; or
  • Mail a contribution check directly to the Plan

For additional information about how to do more with your tax refund this year, visit

ScholarShare is proud to partner with California GEAR-UP, so we can work together to increase the number of students who are prepared to enter and succeed in college.

According to a 2013 survey by Hart Research Associates, 92% of parents considered getting a college degree worth it, but only 46% of parents have set up a dedicated savings or investment account for their child’s higher education costs. ScholarShare, recently awarded a Bronze metal rating by Morningstar, a prominent ratings agency, is administered by the state of California and managed by TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc. Named for the section of the internal revenue code under which they were created, 529 plans offer families a tax-advantaged way to save for college.

Some of the benefits of the ScholarShare Plan include:

  • Accounts can be opened with as little as $25;
  • A wide variety of low-cost investment options are offered;
  • There are no annual account maintenance fees;
  • Earnings, if any, are tax-free if used for qualified higher education expenses such as tuition and fees, books and supplies, and certain room and board costs;
  • Funds may be used at eligible educational institutions nationwide, and some abroad;
  • Anyone can contribute to the account, making it a great gift idea for family and friends for special occasions.

To learn more or to open an account, visit or call 1-800-544-5248. Like ScholarShare on Facebook at and follow us on Twitter at @ScholarShare529.

Preparing for college academically and financially can help keep students on the path toward success.

Consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses before investing in the ScholarShare 529 College Savings Plan. Please visit for a Program Disclosure Booklet containing this and other information. Read it carefully.

 Before investing in a 529 plan, you should consider whether the state you or your Beneficiary reside in or have taxable income in has a 529 plan that offers favorable state income tax or other benefits that are only available if you invest in that state’s 529 plan.

 The tax information contained herein is not intended to be used, and cannot be used, by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding tax penalties. Taxpayers should seek advice based on their own particular circumstances from an independent tax advisor. Non-qualified withdrawals may be subject to federal and state taxes and the additional federal 10% tax. Non-qualified withdrawals may also be subject to an additional 2.5% California tax on earnings.

 Investments in the Program are neither insured nor guaranteed and there is the risk of investment loss.

 The ScholarShare 529 College Savings Plan Twitter and Facebook pages are managed by the state of California. TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc., Plan Manager



California GEAR UP: Partnering for Student Success


By Christian Smith – CA GEAR UP Project Coordinator

California GEAR UP: Partnering for Student Success

The CA GEAR UP partnership with the California College Guidance Initiative (CCGI) has had great results during the 2014-2015 school year. By working in collaboration with PIQE (Parent Institute for Quality Education) we now offer GEAR UP middle schools and their feeder high schools on-site training, utilizing as a tool to engage students and families and help promote a college going culture on campus.  Students will receive a systematic baseline of guidance and support through this technological tool for the college and career planning and preparation process.

With the launch of the new website in January of 2014, we are committed to helping educators and community partners realize the full potential of the new site and the added professional center, a resource that allows educators to communicate, track and review students progress. has been designed as the one-stop resource for information about higher education in California focusing on students, counselors, and parental user roles. CA GEAR UP is excited to share this tool via trainings on how to best utilize the site with partners like PIQE and CEP (Coalition for Education Partnerships) in addition to several of our 48 middle schools. With more training scheduled through the rest of this year, we are always looking for innovative ways to use technology to promote college and career opportunities.

Over 2/3 of the GEAR UP cohort of 48 middle schools have been trained on the resource, resulting in over 7,000 accounts being created and 64,000 page views on the site.  CA GEAR UP students have been utilizing the Interest Profiler Survey, a Holland Code (RIASEC) Test, to determine careers and vocational choice based upon personality types.  From there the students can link careers to college majors and schools that offer those majors. To help further the conversation with students about careers and goal setting, PIQE has incorporated into workshops 5 and 6 of their family focused curriculum.  Family members are working with their students, reviewing student results and engaged in conversation about students’ interest and future plans.

With more trainings scheduled and PIQE classes on the horizon, this partnership continues to show clear and positive outcomes for schools, families and students.  Check out the new and improved site today at!


Learn more on the California GEAR UP website and follow on Twitter and Facebook.




Partner Spotlight: Coalition for Educational Partnerships


About CEP: Mission and Belief

Founded in 2003, the Coalition for Educational Partnerships (CEP) is a non-profit organization driven by a belief in educational access and equity for all students. CEP’s mission is to promote educational equity by assisting schools, educators, families and community-based organizations to engage in practices that enable all children to reach their highest potential and increase their readiness for post-secondary higher education.

Our experience suggests that deep and lasting organizational change requires collective effort, time and commitment towards embracing different ways of seeing, being and doing. CEP assists our partner clients with creating a culture of inquiry, reflection and responsiveness that supports academic teaching and learning. Our services are designed to help administrators, teachers and school leaders to institutionalize systems and processes for reaching their goals. When students, educators and families have the tools to embrace new learning with calm and confidence, skills are developed, knowledge is deepened and achievement soars.

Approach to Family and Community Engagement

CEP’s Family and Community Engagement Services are founded on a culturally-relevant and responsive model for building and sustaining a collaborative and holistic college-going student support system. Our Family and Community Engagement Services are designed to:

  • Recognize, value and build upon the social capital and currency of families and communities
  • Foster the building of family learning and knowledge within the context of understanding school and community culture
  • Facilitate stronger connection and collaboration between schools, families and communities

CEP’s training curriculum is focused on equipping families with the knowledge, skills and tools to assist their students with being academically ready and prepared to pursue post-secondary education at the college and university level. Through our facilitation and technical assistance, we work with schools to establish systems and structures for building and sustaining impactful school, family and community partnerships.

The result of our continuing collaborative efforts with educators, families, and community partners provides students with assurance that the adults in their lives are truly committed to ensuring that students achieve their potential for academic success.


Many families don’t realize that college preparation begins before a student first sets foot in school and that the preparation continues through elementary, middle and high school. Numerous studies have shown that a student’s academic performance before high school will determine whether a student is prepared to go onto and succeed in college and career. In particular, students who demonstrate motivation, engagement and self-discipline in middle school are more likely to be successful in high school, college and career (The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring That All Students Are On Target For College and Career Readiness Before High School-ACT 2008)

CEP’s Families United for Student Success (F.U.S.S.) partnership with California GEAR UP enables us to reach families at a critical juncture in their student’s social and academic development. This is the time for all partners to come together with families to:

  • Help students connect their studies to their future goals
  • Engage students in relevant and dynamic learning opportunities in and out of school
  • Ensure that students receive rigorous instruction that prepares them for college and career
  • Set students on a clear academic and course-taking path into college

Through the F.U.S.S. partnership, CEP works with schools to expand their capacity to support and promote authentic parent, family and community involvement and engagement. Partnership Services include:

  • GEAR UP Family Engagement Support Services
  • Families United for Student Success College Prep Curriculum
  • Common Core Saturday Camp
  • GEAR UP College and Career Community Festival

For more information, check out Brochure of CEP GEAR UP Services.

CEP’s Passion For Education

The Coalition for Educational Partnerships knows that school can be transformational and that education opens up worlds of possibilities. We all have the responsibility to create every opportunity for all students to succeed—while they are only 20% of our population, they represent 100% of our future. We believe that children are our greatest investment and are committed to doing our part to realize the greatest returns.


Start the New School Year Off With a Plan to Save for College


kids scholarshare

New classes, new teachers and reunions with old friends make the beginning of the school year an exciting time for students and parents. But also a time to remember that for many families, college is just around the corner and saving money now will pay off later. Saving early helps ease the burden of rising tuition and living expenses and makes it more likely your child will attend. A great way to save is by opening or contributing to a ScholarShare account. ScholarShare, California’s 529 College Savings Plan, can provide parents and relatives – anyone saving for a child’s college education – with valuable tax advantages.

ScholarShare is proud to be partners with GEAR-UP, so we can work together to increase the number of students who are prepared to enter and succeed in college.

According to a 2012 survey by Hart Research Associates, 84 percent of parents considered it “very important” that their children attend college, but not many had started saving.  ScholarShare, which was named one of the nine best 529 plans in the nation by Morningstar, a prominent ratings agency, is administered by the state of California and managed by TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc.  Named for the section of the internal revenue code under which they were created, 529 plans offer families a tax-advantaged way to save for college.

scholarshare logo


Some of the benefits of the ScholarShare plan include:

  • Accounts can be opened with as little as $25;
  • A wide variety of low-cost investment options are offered;
  • There are no annual account maintenance fees;
  • Potential earnings are tax-free if used for qualified higher education expenses such as tuition and fees, books and supplies, and certain room and board costs;
  • Funds may be used at eligible educational institutions nationwide, and some abroad;
  • Anyone can contribute to the account, making it a great gift idea for family and friends for special occasions.

To learn more or to open an account, visit or call 1-800-544-5248. Like ScholarShare on Facebook at and follow us on Twitter at @ScholarShare529.

Preparing for college academically and financially can help keep students on the path toward success.


Consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses before investing in the ScholarShare 529 College Savings Plan. Please visit for a Program Disclosure Booklet containing this and other information. Read it carefully.

Before investing in a 529 plan, you should consider whether the state you or your Beneficiary reside in or have taxable income in has a 529 plan that offers favorable state income tax or other benefits that are only available if you invest in that state’s 529 plan.

The tax information contained herein is not intended to be used, and cannot be used, by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding tax penalties. Taxpayers should seek advice based on their own particular circumstances from an independent tax advisor. Non-qualified withdrawals may be subject to federal and state taxes and the additional federal 10% tax. Non-qualified withdrawals may also be subject to an additional 2.5% California tax on earnings. Investments in the Program are neither insured nor guaranteed and there is the risk of investment loss. The ScholarShare 529 College Savings Plan Twitter and Facebook pages are managed by the state of California. TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc., Plan Manager

An Interview With GEAR UP Principal Esperanza Arce


Esperanza Arce is the Principal of the Vista Verde Middle School Cougars in Moreno Valley, CA.

Vista Verde has been a California GEAR UP school for 3 years.


Please tell us about how Vista Verde became STW-TCS redesigned model middle school and as an AVID demonstration school and what it means to you.

Vista Verde became STW-TCS  (California Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage) redesigned model middle school and an AVID demonstration school because of all the hard work and countless hours our teachers, staff, students, and community have dedicated.  Our teachers have common prep periods daily, so they have many opportunities to collaborate as a department and constantly share best practices and strategies.  Additionally, our district office is very supportive giving us numerous opportunities through minimum-day Wednesdays and  district-wide  CORE days to provide professional development to our teachers in best practices/strategies, RTI, PBIS, AIM Lesson Planning, and more.  Every student has Advisory in their schedule; a period of time allocated for school-wide announcements, extra time to complete classwork/homework, once a week anti-bullying lessons, fun activities such as March Madness, and much more. Furthermore, AVID is a priority to us; we offer 9 sections of AVID (3 in each grade-level).  77% of our teachers have received AVID training and soon we will be at 100%.  We also offer rigorous electives such as Spanish and STEM to all of our high-achieving and GATE students.  We provide significant support throughout the day to our various student cohorts.  Our Special Education students receive a Learning Strategies section where they are provided with the opportunity to learn or master study skills and complete assignments from their core classes.  Their Case Carriers have access to their caseload daily via the Learning Strategies and/or their Advisory.  Additionally, they receive support throughout the day.  Our ELD students receive 2 sections of ELD with experienced and expert ELD teachers who also incorporate GATE and AVID strategies.  With over 370 Chromebooks provided by our District Office, our students have access to technology regularly and our teachers incorporate the use of technology in their lessons on a daily basis.  One clear example is the use of these chromebooks during AVID tutorials in content-area subjects.  The aforementioned are only some of the reasons VVMS became a STW-TCS redesigned model middle school and an AVID Demonstration school.

 As a principal, receiving these recognitions can be the highlight of any leader’s professional career, so it means a lot to me.  Many times I try to find ways to validate the hard work of our faculty and staff, but our team is so humble that no matter how great I reiterate to them they are, they simply smile and continue doing a great job.  Therefore, getting these two recognitions, and most recently the CBEE Honor Roll mention, allows my team of faculty and staff to see how valuable they are.  It reinforces their hard work and shows them that others confirm their value.  Vista Verde Middle School is a unique place; there is a true sense of family, collegiality, support for each other, and uniformed vision and mission.  To be the principal of this amazing place is truly an honor.  Words cannot express what Vista Verde means to me; a school that provides a quality education to all students deserves to be recognized; I may be the face, but our staff and students are the heart.

Tell us a little about the community and school.

Our community and school are very diverse.  Vista Verde is in the middle of a large urban community in the center of Moreno Valley.  We are a Title 1 school consisting of students from many different backgrounds and a large range of SES.  The student participation in our various academic programs mirrors our school’s demographics.  We have strong parent support and an involved community.  Over 80% of our student population consists of Latino and African American students.  27% of our student population is in AVID.    Vista Verde Middle School feels like home to our students; they fit in and know we care about them.

Why be a principal?

Any individual involved in education can make a difference.  I am a principal because I wholeheartedly believe in making a difference EVERY DAY.  I help impact the structure of my school to positively affect the quality education we offer our students.  I am a principal because I enjoy working with teachers and staff who are in education, not because it is a job, but because it is a way of living.  We are a team who work together to provide opportunities for those who want to achieve and to change the minds of those who think “they can’t” achieve.  | am a principal because I once thought I couldn’t achieve, but was given the opportunity to do so.

What are some challenges your school community faces?

There are many challenges our school community faces, but some of the more prevalent are the social influences constantly facing our “at-risk” youth.  Vista Verde MS is in the middle of a large city with many pockets of unpleasant influences.  Our students, like many other students, are constantly tempted with these negative social influences.  As a school we are continuously implementing proactive interventions to guide our students through positive pathways, and hence, have the greater impact in their lives.  We do not want to lose our students to drugs, gangs, violence, etc., which are elements of any community, so we work closely with our Student Services department, community resources, and our teachers and parents to provide an environment in our school that we hope to have a long-lasting positive affect in the decisions of our students.  We have done this by creating strong academic programs like AVID, Jr. Scholars, AVID Keepers, SPED-LS, STEM, ELD, and rigorous electives.

Why is getting students to think about college in middle school important?

It is very important to get students to think about college in middle school because for many students thinking about college in high school may be too late.  I worked with high school students for over 10 years and it was very unfortunate to witness many of these students come into high school with little or no knowledge about the college entrance requirements (SAT, A-G, ACT, etc.).  Many high school counselors are servicing over 500 students in their case load; therefore, meeting the needs of their students may be very difficult. Many counselors tend to focus their attention on 12th graders because of priority and time sensitivity, so many 9th to 11th graders tend to get neglected.  Consequently, these students are minimally informed about college/university entrance requirements or options.  Therefore, we have to empower our middle school students to become their own advocates. 

It is never too early to teach our students about a decision that can affect the rest of their life.  The college verbiage should be a constant part of any school.  Every teacher should be talking about college.  I don’t believe that every student will go to college, but I do believe that every student should be given the opportunity to choose to go to college.  If we deprive our students of this essential information, I believe we are robbing them of their choice.  We can never “over inform” students of the college options they have and there is nothing that prevents us from starting in middle school.  As a former high school teacher and administrator, I would be grateful to the middle schools that make this a priority; it will not only increase college-going rates but provide more students with the knowledge of what it takes to make it (of course this is only part of the battle; we must also work on preparing students to be successful once they get to college).

How has the school changed with GEAR UP?

GEAR Up has been instrumental in Vista Verde’s most recent accomplishments.  It has given our teachers the opportunity to get AVID and College Board trained and use the strategies throughout their instruction impacting both AVID and non-AVID students.  GEAR Up has also increased our vertical and horizontal articulation within our school and between our high schools and our feeder elementary schools.  The GEAR Up site leadership team meets regularly and attends critical conferences where the information comes back to the site and is presented to the rest of our staff.  Our GEAR Up coordinator and regional coach/mentor work closely together and are constantly communicating about the latest college activities, updates, information, etc.

Why is an educated workforce important for strong communities?

An educated workforce is important for a strong community because it will contribute to a positive cycle.  The more productive citizens we help develop, the better the workforce, the stronger and more productive the community.  We see this in the research and in the practice.  Our goal as a school is to positively contribute to the community, so that the community can positively contribute to the schools.  It makes sense.  Not all students will stay and live in the communities that help raise them, but many will.

What are some of the challenges in preparing all students for career/college?

Some of the challenges in preparing all students for career/college include the lack of funds to pay for more school personnel.  Increasing the number of school counselors could greatly benefit students.  More funds could increase resources in the school and around the community.  Training and paying our teachers to become college coaches for our at-risk students could greatly benefit preparing students for career/college.  Although we have an amazing AVID program, many of our students could be classified as “transitional-AVID” students.  These students would be placed into an “AVID-type” program where students slowly gain the knowledge and skills to be accepted into the AVID program.  However, more AVID sections would mean the need for more funding.

 Anything else you would like to tell about yourself, your school, or your students?

Vista Verde is a wonderful school and I am so proud to be able to say “…it is ‘my’ school…”  :)  There are many special things happening and there are many more special things in the process of blossoming.  Our school is a GEAR Up School, an AVID Demonstration School, a CBEE Honor Roll School, and a Schools-to-Watch-TCS because our teachers, staff, students, and community work together, have ownership of the school, and truly care.

Vista Verde, besides  being a “School to Watch” for two years and and an AVID Demonstration School, has the good fortune to have a principal, Esperanza Arce, who not only has her vision of educational excellence but also has the wisdom to foster and support the creative efforts of her staff members in attaining this vision.  Except for commute time challenges, I would not hesitate a moment to enroll my seventh grade grandson at Vista Verde.     —Jon Sides, California GEAR UP Whole School Services Coach

For more information on AVID, STW-TCS, GEAR UP, or Vista Verde, check these links out.







College Week at Everett Middle School is a BIG Success.

We are lucky to have a guest blogger Michele Molitor, California GEAR UP School Services Coach, share with us some of the systemic success at Everett Middle School in San Francisco.

Everett Middle School, located in the Mission District of San Francisco, continues to lead the way as a “School on the Move” for California GEAR UP!  Everett has set some big goals, and has had amazing results, including an increase API of 40 and 54 points over the last two years respectively. (insert dramatic pause here, these are MASSIVE API gains) This spring has been a busy time for them as they have engaged their staff and students in a variety of College Going Culture activities.  Their latest success story was College Week – held March 8th through March 15th.

They had a terrific line up of activities for parents and students alike.  They kicked College Week off on Friday evening with Parent University.  This involved inviting parents, students and community members to attend a dinner and college presentation.  There were a variety of providers that shared information on college going programs and college information, which was relevant in helping their students prepare for college.  The community partners included:

There was so much enthusiasm for all the terrific information being shared, dinner was delayed so everyone could soak it all up! While everyone shared in a meal together, a powerpoint presentation was shared, reviewing the A-G requirements, college entrance requirements, where to go for help and information about the upcoming college week on campus.

Earlier in the day, all students received the “College Making It Happen” booklet along with additional information on college and curriculum from their homeroom teachers on how to find the answers to important college prep questions.

Starting on Monday, there was a series of different activities each day for the students.  They received a Student Passport, which they were to fill out during the week as they attended the different activities. A completely filled out passport earned them an A-G t-shirt given out by SF Promise.

Here is just a snapshot of the fun activities they had for the students:

  • Each day homeroom teachers encouraged students to fill out their passport and learn more about what it takes to go to college, plus they had different college talk points to share with them as well.
  • There was a lunch time “rapper” that talked about college and the A-G requirements
  • Students had a chance to get their faces painted with different school logos and take a picture with their high school graduation year as the backdrop.
  • Students had the opportunity to join different college clubs.
  • There was even a booth there about credit cards, to warn students of the interest rates when they borrow money.
  • They brought in real “live” college students too. Students had to interview them and fill out their college bingo sheet to win prizes.
  • Friday was the big finale with a college debrief in their homeroom, followed by a quick student survey.  The Gear Up leadership team also put on a school wide assembly that included:
    • Review of college week photos
    • A student led video with Q&A about college
    • An A-G powerpoint to continue to engrain these important points for students
    • Raffle winners were announced
    • A “Tell us about your college experience” teacher panel was conducted so students in the audience could ask questions of the five different teachers on the panel.
    • And last but not least, students got to silk screen on their A-G shirts “College is my Hustle” or  “I Hecka Heart College”

Overall, it was a powerful week for teachers and students alike.  Big kudos to the entire GEAR UP leadership team that coordinated all of the efforts and spent 2 months planning all of the activities!

This huge effort was only piece of the puzzle too. Everett has a myriad of other activities going on an any given time to help raise student awareness of what’s needed to go to college, increase parent and community participation and improve student test scores.  It’s no wonder that Everett’s API score increased by 94 points in two years! Under the leadership and direction of Principal Richard Curci, Everett’s faculty and student body continue to raise the bar for success – knowing that when given the information, guidance and support Every Student can have the opportunity to go to college!

If you have questions about Everett’s successful College Week activities, contact:

Tracy Brown-Gallardo

Community Schools Coordinator

Everett Middle School

Partner Spotlight: PIQE’s Maria Elena Meraz

PIQE is one of California GEAR UP‘s long lasting and most trusted partnerships. With our post today we have the pleasure to interview Maria Elena Meraz, Executive Director of PIQE’s Los Angeles regional office. She responsible for program development, quality control, marketing, and training PIQE directors, instructors, coordinators, recruiters, and other personnel. She maintains program supervision, enrollment, attendance, completion, and communication with staff from PIQE school sites.

How did you start working with families and why are you passionate about it?

My work with parents began in 1993 when my son started elementary school. I was new to the country and didn’t know much about how the school system functioned but became involved a parent volunteer. My son has an orthopedic condition and I wanted to make sure he was being accommodated. There, I was also involved with the School Site Council. In addition I helped to organize workshops for parents with special needs. In 1996 I participated in the PIQE program as a parent and instantly fell in love with the program. It gave me the tools and information I needed to ensure my son was on a path to college. Thereafter I became involved with PIQE as a workshop facilitator. I am passionate about this work because I share the same experience as many of the parents we work with. I was once in their shoes, I was intimidated by the system and had very limited English, I am now the proud parent of a college graduate and a testament to the effectiveness of PIQE.

Why do you think it is important to engage families in the education process?

There is no greater love than a parent’s love for their child. Parents want to see their children succeed and they will go above and beyond to make sure they do. However, many parents, particularly those in underserved communities lack the knowledge about academic expectations, college requirements, and resources available to them and their students. It is when parents are empowered with the proper tools and information that we can begin to close the achievement gap.

What was your experience in middle school like and how were you influenced to go to college?

I attended a private middle school in Mexico. I constantly received messages from my parents and family that college was the expectation.

What do you think are some of the most important factors that will contribute to preparation for and student success in college?

I believe that raising expectations is one of the most important factors that will contribute to preparation for and student success in college. When students receive messages from school and from home that college is the standard, particularly during their most formative years, we begin to see changes in student behavior and in their motivation to succeed academically. It is also important that there are services, like the California GEAR UP, in the community to supplement students with resources that parents are not able to provide.

What are some of the most effective ways to get families involved with their school community?

The most effective way for a family to get involved in their school community is by becoming familiar with the school system so that they are comfortable about making contact with teachers and counselors. This will enable them to learn about their child’s math and reading level, ensure that their child is on the right track, and if not to develop a strategy to intervene and make positive steps towards college readiness.

Tell us about some of the  PIQE initiatives  you are most proud of.

PIQE’s partnership with California GEAR UP is one our most important partnerships, it allows us to focus our work at the middle school level. As part of the 6-year initiative, PIQE will be provide to parents the 9-week Parent Engagement in Education Program, the 4-month Follow-Up Program, and the Teacher Workshop. PIQE-LA has worked with over 600 school teachers through the PIQE Teacher Workshop. We are excited to include this as part of the GEAR UP partnership because it allows us to connect parents and teachers so that they are working towards the same goal.

When did you first start working with GEAR UP and why is the work important?

I first met the California GEAR UP team in 2000 at a meeting at Drew Middle School. Our partnership is important because it allows us to focus our work at the middle school level. The middle school level is critical to a student’s academic success. Research shows that planning and college preparation needs to start as early as the 6th grade so that they are ready for A-G coursework in High School.

What is your favorite part of your work?

PIQE is a program that is constantly evolving and growing to better serve the community. I enjoy that every year we see new accomplishments.

Anything else you would like to share with the GEAR UP Community?

Thank you for considering me for the spotlight. California GEAR UP has always been an avid supporter of PIQE, we truly value our partnership and look forward to seeing positive change in our schools.


California GEAR UP works with partnership organizations across the state to achieve the five outcomes at each school listed HERE and HERE (spanish) Partnerships are essential for sustaining school improvement and a college-going culture, and for increasing the opportunities for students to succeed. As a result of participation in the California GEAR UP program, middle schools are expected to take advantage of the resources provided, and utilize other resources available to the school.

For more information on PIQE, please visit their website.