Published on June 20, 2018 by Sara Roman  
Participants in the 2018 GearUp program with Samford President Andrew Westmoreland and faculty members Monique Gardner-Witherspoon and Tarsha Bluiett

For the past four years, students from Birmingham City Schools have participated in “GEAR UP” or the Student Reading Achievement and Leadership Program at Samford University’s Orlean Beeson School of Education. The program is a collaborative partnership between GEAR UP Birmingham, Birmingham City Schools and Samford University.

GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. Samford education faculty members Tarsha Bluiett and Monique Gardner-Witherspoon serve as codirectors for the program.

In 2015, the program began as a three-week initiative with just 20 students. The goal was to help improve the students’ reading fluency, comprehension, vocabulary and reading skills. Today, the program has grown to a two-week summer workshop with year-round development support for student participants. The participants still focus on academic subjects such as literacy, science, math and technology, but the program has grown to include leadership development, ACT preparation and a College Awareness Program for students and their parents.

“We know that Colleges and Universities are looking for students who excel academically, but they are also looking for well-rounded leaders,” said Witherspoon, assistant dean, assistant professor and director of the Master of Science in Education degree program in educational leadership. “We have designed the Student Reading Achievement and Leadership Program to include relevant activities and experiences in order to prepare our student participants to meet today’s higher education expectations.”

Bluiett and Witherspoon have incorporated sessions for both students and their parents that include college admissions requirements, career goals and pathways, financial aid and scholarship information, communication and public speaking, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career information sessions. They have also worked hard to ensure that while they attend the summer workshop, the students receive real college experiences at Samford. The students have access to campus tours, experiences in a college classroom, scholar and athlete information sessions, and conversations with academic deans and university administrators in the areas of their career interests.

After three years of assessing student growth, the measures of success for the Student Reading Achievement and Leadership Program at Samford were found to be so outstanding that Bluiett and Witherspoon were selected to present their program model at the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships Conference in Washington, D.C. this July.

“We are incredibly proud to have been selected,” said Bluiett, associate professor of elementary education and director of the M.S.E. program in elementary education. “It is our hope that our program will continue to increase academic achievement, grow the graduation rate and will effectively expose and inspire students and parents to become familiar with college entrance requirements, campus life and the expectations for post-secondary achievement.” 

Bluiett and Witherspoon said they hope to continue to expand the program through the support of Samford University Administration and the Office of Admission, as well as GEAR UP Birmingham and Birmingham City Schools.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.