The federal government gave 2,000 Maryland sixth-graders an extra incentive yesterday to go to college: the guarantee of help graduating from high school, followed by the promise of scholarship money.
"I'm very excited, because it means I have a better chance to go to college," said Sirlilar Stokes, 10, a sixth-grader at Rognel Heights Elementary/Middle School in West Baltimore. "It's something I want to do."
Pupils in a handful of middle schools in Baltimore and Baltimore, Garrett, Prince George's and Somerset counties will participate in college awareness and enrichment activities and receive mentoring, counseling and career guidance. Scholarships will be available to those going on to college.
The federal program -- Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP -- awarded Maryland the $13.9 million, five-year grant to boost college attendance rates for students from low-income families.
"This is perhaps one of the most important and beneficial and innovative programs in the state," said Robert Booker, Baltimore schools chief executive officer. "GEAR UP will provide a solid foundation for our youth to achieve their fullest academic potential. Many of these students will probably be the first in their families to receive college educations."
The grant was announced yesterday in a ceremony at Rognel Heights with state and local educators, as well as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. Executives from several major Maryland companies attendeding pledged their support, promising internships and other help.
"I was the first in my family to go to college," Sarbanes told Rognel Heights sixth-graders. "I know that you need people pushing you and helping you to get there."
Lombard Middle School is the other Baltimore school picked for the GEAR UP program; middle schools in the other four systems have not yet been selected.
In addition to the $13.9 million GEAR UP awards, Annapolis Middle School and Harford Community College have won smaller federal GEAR UP grants for college preparation. Educators say that targeting low-income pupils for college awareness while they're in middle school is critical to closing the huge income gap among students who enroll in college.
"This is all about high expectations," Cummings said. "If you look at a child and say, 'I will expect the least of you,' that's what you'll get."
A U.S. Department of Education study found that 83 percent of high school graduates from high-income families enrolled in college in 1995, while 34 percent of students from low-income families did the same.
"We know that just wanting to go to college is not enough," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "We need to provide help, too."
Maryland has been trying to improve college attendance rates among low-income students for at least 10 years, beginning with several pilot programs in 1988, said Patricia S. Florestano, Maryland's secretary of higher education.
Some of those programs -- including ones in Allegany, Charles and Kent counties -- also are expected to receive some support from the GEAR UP grant, according to state educational officials.
But long-term federal funding for GEAR UP is far from guaranteed. Money for next year is caught in the middle of a congressional budget fight, Sarbanes said.
Parents at Rognel Heights said they hope the program will help make college a reality for their children.
"My goal is for my daughter to go to college," said Sandra Robinson, whose daughter Jazma is a sixth-grader at the school. "Before today, I didn't know how, when or where. Now I know it can come true."