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Lipscomb to help change college outlook for Nashville students

GEARUP grant brings multiple higher-education institutions together to improve local middle schoolers’ chances to further education.

Kalli Groce  | 

Lipscomb sign

The first thing that has to happen for a high-school graduate to further their education is for that student, at some point much earlier in time, to realize that they can further their education. 

The Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation, a part of Lipscomb’s College of Education, has proven expertise in exposing students to the college experience. This is why Nashville’s school district came to Lipscomb, along with several other universities and agencies around town, to help carry out the $13.4-million GEARUP grant.

GEARUP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, and it is a grant, federally funded through the U.S. Department of Education, that was awarded to Metro Nashville Public Schools. The program focuses on middle and high schoolers, and it aims to increase local students’ opportunities to be exposed at an early age to the college experience.

Lipscomb will host hundreds of students from local middle schools on campus for tours this spring. It will also be providing multiple professional development opportunities through online training modules, and it has formed a cadre of teachers from both middle and high schools to discuss important topics related to meeting the needs of adolescents as they navigate their educational goals.


Nashville middle schoolers enjoy a campus visit at Lipscomb.

Raising expectations

“The vision for the grant is to change the college-going culture in all of these schools,” says John-Paul Gray, coordinator for GEARUP at MNPS. “When we say college, it’s a general term. It can mean a four-year or two-year school, an apprenticeship, the military. We just want to develop a plan for the students as they walk across that stage.”

Gray noted that before GEARUP, there were a lot of partners in the community who were doing the same work, but they were working in silos. The GEARUP grant brings Lipscomb and three other local higher educational institutions together to have a greater impact on the students at an earlier point in their educational careers. 

MNPS chose middle schools to participate in the GEARUP program using the number of free and reduced lunches, low-income students and first-generation populations at each school. If a school’s college-going rates also fell below the state and MNPS averages, they were included within the grant. 

The idea is to work with students at an earlier age to get information in front of them so they will understand earlier in the process how their decisions could affect that opportunity years down the road.

Gray has heard stories of students stepping onto Lipscomb’s campus, and their eyes are just wide open. They didn’t realize all the opportunities that Lipscomb could provide them. The oohs and aahs about what a campus looks like and what it provides, and the amazing meals they have for lunch—those are the types of things Gray hears about after a tour.

The Lipscomb/Ayers role in GEARUP

Lipscomb will host students from 10 middle schools on campus over eight days throughout the spring semester. There will be 160 to 260 students, along with chaperones, per visit. But campus tours are just one aspect of the university’s involvement. 

The Ayers Institute will be providing professional development opportunities as part of the grant, using its online training modules developed through a partnership with the Tennessee College Access and Success Network, called the College Access Project. MNPS has identified individuals for the training, which teaches how to provide effective college counseling support to students. Trainees will include school counselors, school administrators and teachers who might be identified as college access professionals. 

In addition, the Ayers Institute has formed a cadre of teachers identified by their principals from both middle and high schools to come together and talk about the driving question, “What does a 14-year-old need?” From this broad starting point, deeper discussions will include topics such as:

  • the importance of community within a classroom and a school;
  • ideas of what motivates a 14-year-old;
  • what we’re learning about adolescence and how that impacts the way a 14-year-old thinks; and
  • deep exploration into social-emotional learning and wellness.

The collective wisdom of the group, which will provide insights into how to increase the college-going identities of typical middle schoolers, will eventually be published on, a website that provides free, high-quality educational resources that support academic success.

“It has been wonderful to bring a group of dedicated individuals around something that is so broad but so important a topic,” said Rachael Milligan, assistant dean of the college of education and managing director of the Ayers Institute. 

Lipscomb is also offering a math professional development component throughout the school year and in the summer as part of the GEARUP grant.


Lipscomb will host students from 10 Nashville middle schools in spring 2020.

First look: Campus tours 

Many of the middle schoolers who visit Lipscomb with GEARUP have never toured a college campus before. During a typical campus visit, students engage in a tour, eat lunch at the Bison Café, and then split into two groups and have sessions with College of Education and Office of Intercultural Development faculty and staff, as well as current Lipscomb students.

“The overall goal for these tours is really for them to ask themselves: What is it like to be a student here? Do I see myself on a campus like this?” said Milligan. “And it’s an opportunity for the students to ask questions.”

She added, “It’s so important to build that college-going identity at the middle-school level and not wait until high school, because they are building those structures right now about what they want to do.”

The message of each portion of the campus visit is the same: You can do this, and there are a lot of people who want to help you succeed.


GEARUP includes an impressive group of community partners, working together to accomplish the common goal of exposing students to the college experience at an earlier age and building the college-going identity in those students. 

These partners include Belmont University, Lipscomb University, Nashville State Community College, Tennessee College of Applied Technology–Nashville, Conexión Américas, Martha O’Bryan Center, Nashville Technology Council, Oasis Center, Opportunity NOW, Project LIT, Southern Word, Students Taking a Right Stand (STARS), Tennessee College Access and Success Network, Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Tennessee Students Assistance Corporation. 

MNPS plans to leave the GEARUP resources, tools and partnerships in place after the grant ends in 2025. 

You can follow GEARUP on Twitter: @GEARUPNashville.

About the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning & Innovation

The Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning & Innovation was established as a partnership between the Ayers Foundation and Lipscomb University’s College of Education. It serves as a bridge between policy and practice, as well as between educators in PK-12 and higher education.

The goal of the Ayers Institute is to support teachers and leaders in improving student outcomes through proven professional learning and to incubate innovative instructional ideas and resources.

About the Lipscomb College of Education

Lipscomb University’s College of Education is ranked one of the top in the nation for teacher preparation. Lipscomb trains future educators who are leaders, lifelong learners and are prepared to lead educational organizations through innovation, collaboration and strategic change.