Gear Up Tennessee: Examining the Roles of Site Coordinators and School Counselors in the Development and Implementation of Program Initiatives
Chapman, Carter Sean
Donnelly, Kathryn Lee
McGraner, Kristin Lynne
This report examines the role of GEAR UP site coordinators and school counselors in the development and implementation of GEAR UP Tennessee. The GEAR UP Tennessee program is an ambitious effort that offers a myriad of interventions to support academic preparation and college access in rural communities across the state. Though supported by a network of local and state partners, the program gives the nine participating districts discretion in the design and implementation of initiatives at the local level. Site coordinators are the primary agents charged with the responsibility of district-level implementation. Within the school context, school counselors are the individuals with the organizational proximity necessary for meaningful interactions with students concerning educational advancement. While GEAR UP Tennessee has collected data relative to the program's effects on schools, teachers, and parents, the work of site coordinators and school counselors has been largely overlooked. Therefore, in response to a request for assistance from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), we developed the following research questions: How does the program structure and district context shape site 1) coordinators' implementation of GEAR UP? 2)What factors affect school counselors' implementation of GEAR UP initiatives? We conducted 63 semi-structured interviews with GEAR UP site coordinators, district leaders, school principals, school counselors and THEC officials. Interviews were designed to gather information on the district's performance in preparing students for post-secondary education; the respondent's knowledge of and role within GEAR UP; district and school supports and barriers affecting implementation, which include issues around individual and institutional capacity and will; the coherence of program messages and the sense-making in which respondents engaged to make decisions about their participation in the program and its implementation; and respondents' perceptions of program effects. Our data reveal that: Participating school districts were pressured by, and as a result largely focused on, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) compliance. The presence of NCLB largely detracted from the district's ability to fully embrace GEAR UP and integrate it into their district improvement plan. District and school leaders possessed little knowledge about GEAR UP, its intended implementation, and the appropriate role structure of site coordinators, district personnel, and school personnel. Most site coordinators did not perceive GEAR UP as a potential lever for systemic change. Site coordinators and school counselors received little substantive support from state and local leadership relative to implementation of GEAR UP college access interventions. The content of site coordinators' work focused predominantly on activity planning, resource distribution, and grant compliance. The community culture, specifically the "welfare state of mind," was perceived by all respondents as a barrier to advancing students' educational attainment. Training and professional development activities have been provided for site coordinators with a primary focus on grant compliance and reporting mechanisms. Site coordinators reported few opportunities to deepen their knowledge of how to increase students' academic preparation and college access, which has significant effects on implementation outcomes, program sustainability, and systemic change. Training for district and school personnel has been lacking and, in many cases, nonexistent. The work of school counselors is influenced by the lack of a coherent counseling curriculum, time constraints, and role ambiguity. Consequently, counselors provide sporadic support and leadership in GEAR UP implementation. As a result of these findings, we offer the following recommendations to ensure full program implementation and the attainment of program goals: 1) Improve the visibility and effectiveness of site coordinators by developing communication networks among coordinators and school and district personnel; creating comprehensive training manuals for coordinators; and implementing a series of trainings which address the factors influencing students' academic preparation and college access, as well as program implementation strategies supportive of GEAR UP goals. 2) Educate and involve district and school leadership by developing a GEAR UP TN Leaders Guide in tandem with GEAR UP TN leadership trainings. Trainings will create the forum to collaboratively plan with site coordinators in order to align GEAR UP TN interventions to both the district and school improvement plans. 3) Educate and involve the school counselor by developing a GEAR UP TN School Counselors Guide in tandem with GEAR UP TN counseling trainings. Trainings will help counselors implement college preparation curricula, improve collaborative planning with site coordinators, and develop communication networks among counselors. 4) Collectively develop a comprehensive sustainability plan which determines how to effectively disseminate data; galvanize support of the school counselor as well as district and school leadership within GEAR UP TN; and effect state-level policy change to enhance the core goals of GEAR UP TN.