On-Board for a Fascinating Journey

It’s an often-said truism that meaningful change takes time and is not the result of one-and-done interventions.  Starting this month, Sun Associates will have the unique opportunity to put that concept to the test through our new work as the external evaluator of a seven-year project focusing on a specific cohort of Fitchburg, MA middle school students.  Fitchburg is the focus of Mount Wachusett Community College’s 2018 GEAR UP partnership grant.  GEAR UP is a U.S. Department of Education initiative that aims to increase the number of low-income students prepared to enter post-secondary education. GEAR UP projects provide sustained support to students at specific schools starting in the 6th grade and then follow those students with continuing support throughout their high school years into their first year of post-secondary work.  The students and services we start working with this year will be observed for the next seven years.

There are many exciting and interesting components to the GEAR UP program of work, but one of the project features that we at Sun Associates are most excited about is GEAR UP’s understanding that student post-secondary success is as much about graduating from high school and having the right orientation to post-secondary learning as it is about possessing a specific academic background.  As such, GEAR UP focuses considerable resources on family support and the building of the social and emotional skills necessary for implementing a workable plan for post-secondary education.  Therefore the families of GEAR UP’s 837 students are critical partners in the GEAR UP work.

Over the course of its seven years, GEAR UP partners will provide these 837 Fitchburg students and their parent communities with an rich range of services and supports ranging from academic tutoring, career development exploration, financial and economic literacy development, and ultimately college prep work.  Sun Associates’ job as evaluator for this initiative will be to coordinate school-district-produced measures of student success with data that we collect on the wealth of GEAR UP-supported programs and services.  Our aim is to develop understanding about how various interventions, employed over time, result in specific expected – and no doubt unexpected – outcomes for Fitchburg’s class of 2024.

From an evaluator’s perspective, the GEAR UP project offers a unique possibility to not only study the impact of sustained support for change, but also for understanding how the evaluation process can engage with a project in a dynamic way.  We supported the GEAR UP partnership at the level of its proposal by developing a logic model that framed the project’s theory of change and a basic evaluation plan that addressed programmatic reporting and tracking requirements.  Now that the project has been funded, the work of developing meaningful evaluation indicators can begin.  We will be undertaking this work with project stakeholders within the next several months. But the really exciting part of evaluating GEAR UP will come from working with the partners and participants to incorporate evaluative learning over time.  Seven years is a long time and surely during this time the project will morph and change in response to the inputs, needs, and reactions of the GEAR UP students, communities and partners.  It’s not often that one has the opportunity to join a journey of the type that GEAR UP promises to be.  We’re honored to be on-board with this project and excited to learn more about the complex universe of supports that ultimately add up to student success.