JEFFERSON — The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded a $29.5 million GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) grant to Appalachian State University for funding, which became effective Sept. 30.

The scope of the grant includes Ashe County and nine other partnering school districts, eight partnering North Carolina higher education institutions and approximately 14,000 middle and high school students and their families.

GEAR UP is a federally funded college access program designed to increase the number of students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education immediately after high school.

“We are thankful for the continued partnership with Appalachian State University,” said Superintendent Dr. Eisa Cox.

She added that ACS is excited to be a part of this grant that will invest in its students.

“Ashe County Schools is excited to continue our grant opportunity with GEARUP,” said ACS Accountability/CTE Director Earl Pennington. “The renewed grant will begin with our current sixth and seventh graders and then incorporate more grade levels over the duration of the grant. The resources and opportunities afforded to our students and their families are key. Our goal is to not only help more students get into an educational experience beyond high school, but more importantly, be successful throughout their experience and complete their education.”

“We are excited Gear Up will be able to continue offering a wide range of opportunities for students, families and teachers, from campus trips to exciting topics such as entrepreneurial learning opportunities, computer science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to academic and college preparation supports such as test prep, mentoring and tutoring,” said Karen Mackey, who serves as ACS’ Gear Up Coordinator.

ASU is one of only six institutions awarded a GEAR UP partnership grant in 2020.

“We want to extend a deep sense of gratitude for the support of university leadership, our partner school districts and partner higher education institutions,” said Corinne Smith, director of Appalachian GEAR UP. “An application of this magnitude was accomplished not as a result of one person but of the teamwork and collaboration that is so strongly valued and lived every day by members of the Appalachian State University faculty and staff. Appalachian GEAR UP is committed to serving the students of Western North Carolina for the long term and to ensuring every student is prepared with the knowledge and skills to succeed in life after high school.”

With full support from university leadership, Appalachian GEAR UP submitted this grant application approximately 14,000 students in Western NC for seven years. Through a wide-range of research-grounded services delivered to students, families and teachers, the GEAR UP program aims to improve college-going mindsets, high school graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment rates.

“We are so excited to continue the great work with our partners across the Western North Carolina region,” said Dr. James Beeler, senior director of Appalachian’s College Access Partnerships, which oversees Appalachian GEAR UP. “We strive to encourage students to envision a future strengthened by postsecondary education and the knowledge to make their dreams come true.”

For more information about the grant and its opportunities for students, visit

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