LAYTON — On Tuesday, 154 parents and secondary students in Weber and Davis districts gathered at the Weber State University Davis Campus to enjoy a meal, watch student cultural performances and learn how to get ready for college.

Brandon Flores, the program’s director, called the room to order and reminded the students of the larger significance of the event before the performances began.

“There are all of these people around you that are there to support you and lift you up,” Flores said.

After the cultural performances, parents and students split into groups for break-out sessions, with separate sessions for parents, junior high students and high school students. The parent session was offered in both Spanish and English because 40 percent of participating students speak Spanish at home with their families.

Parents attended a session called “teaming up with your students to help cultivate their success” and then wrote letters to their children.

The two high school break-out sessions were “mapping out your future” and “cultivating success through time management.” In the session on cultivating their hearts, students created a heart with flower petals and learned about seeking out mentors.

The family night is one of several events put on by Weber State’s federally funded program GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

Weber State’s GEAR UP program is one of four programs in Utah funded as part of a state grant. In order to participate in GEAR UP, students must apply and be admitted. The program focuses on students from minority groups, low-income students and students who would be the first in their families to graduate from college.

In the Weber State GEAR UP class of 2018, 100 percent of students graduated from high school, and 52 percent went on to college, a higher rate than Utah’s average of 45.3 percent, which is tracked by

In the past, GEAR UP family nights were attended only by about 30 students and parents. Because the program now reaches out through social media, newsletters, texts and even personal phone invitations, attendance at family nights can approach 200 people.

“When I approach informing students and families about events, I take what’s called a Manny Pacquiao approach,” said Flores. “I’m a big boxing fan, I love Manny Pacquiao, and any time somebody boxes against Manny Pacquiao, they say it’s so hard to box against him, because unlike other boxers who come straight at you, he hits you from all sorts of different angles.”

Students can enter the program as early as seventh grade and as late as the fall semester of their senior year of high school. The program also serves first-year college students at Weber State, who receive support from Emily Romo-Hendrix, the program’s first-year transition specialist.

As participants in the program, students have regular college prep and financial aid advising from a GEAR UP college access advisor assigned to their school. College access advisors are assisted by lead mentors and tutors, who are current college students, and many of them are alumni of the Weber State GEAR UP Program. It’s common for students check in with their advisors weekly.

In addition to family nights, students can also attend a college visit each semester, a junior high summer day camp and the Multicultural Youth Conference at Weber State.

Rising juniors and seniors can participate in an ACT boot camp over the summer, which prepares them for the ACT college-entrance exam. The 3-day, overnight boot camp happens in July, and on the final day of the boot camp, students take the ACT exam at Weber State on the July test date.

This gives the students many opportunities to build relationships with their peers.

“I like getting to know the different people that joined GEAR UP because I would have never thought that we come from the same background or the same history,” Marissa Delao, a senior in the program. “And I also like having someone that I can go to to talk about it — that’ll explain everything and help me through.”

Janette Velasco, currently and lead mentor and advisor at South Ogden Junior High, is a model of the goals the program hopes to achieve. She joined a GEAR UP program as a high school junior at Roy High and continued participating throughout her freshman year at Weber State.

In 2018, Velasco started as a GEAR UP tutor, became a lead mentor and then took on additional advising responsibilities at South Ogden Junior High. When she graduates with a bachelor’s degree in social work in December, she will become a full-time advisor.

“I think GEAR UP helped me the most in the enrollment process. I didn’t know how to even start applying. They helped me apply for Weber State for concurrent enrollment, which I didn’t even know about at that time. I started taking college classes my senior year,” Velasco said. “You could say they held my hand the whole way, and that’s why I’m here.”

Weber State GEAR UP currently serves 468 students from eight schools in Weber and Davis districts as well 45 freshmen at Weber State.

Weber School District’s participating schools are Bonneville High, South Ogden Junior High and T.H. Bell Junior High, with 230 students across the three schools.

Davis School District’s participating schools are Syracuse High, Syracuse Junior High, Northridge High, North Layton Junior High and Sunset Junior High, with 238 students across five schools.

Ogden School District also has a district GEAR UP program in partnership with Weber State, though the district’s program is not part of the state grant. In October 2018, the district received a GEAR UP grant for the third time, which is significant given how competitive the grant selection process is.

Ogden’s grant will serve the district’s entire high school class of 2024 — about 900 students who are currently seventh graders — through their graduation from high school and their first year of college if attending WSU. Previous grants served the classes of 2014 and 2017.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!