After nearly 15 years on Capitol Hill, Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., still has lofty goals for U.S. education policy in the years ahead.
A driving force behind the decade-old GEAR UP program that helps middle and high school students prepare for college, Fattah says the nation has learned a lot about what works with lowincome youth. “But we have yet to apply it across the board,” he told Diverse.
“We’ve learned how to open up access to college and graduate more students from high school,” he says. “What we haven’t done is take it to scale.”
Finding more funds for GEAR UP and similar initiatives are priorities for the lawmaker, who represents northern and western neighborhoods in Philadelphia. He is in a position to help on the budget front since he is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which sets funding annually for thousands of federal programs.
He says he wants to double the federal investment in GEAR UP, which receives $300 million a year.
“The program (has) had extraordinary success,” he says, noting that participants are graduating from high school and enrolling in college at rates higher than the norm for low-income students.
In fact, Fattah says, there is international interest in the program from countries such as China and Mexico. Fattah talked about the project recently with officials from the European Union, who were interested in the concept, he says, because of concerns about “disaffected young people who have not found their way into the mainstream.”
But despite success, he says, GEAR UP’s reach remains limited because of its small size relative to the nationwide need.
“GEAR UP is at the margins compared to the 50 million kids in our public schools,” says Fattah. To help scale up other strategies that work, Fattah sees other potential gains on the horizon such as President Barack Obama’s plan to improve college-completion rates. As part of that initiative, the nation would invest more in need-based student aid. In addition, community colleges would receive about $12 billion to expand their services and outreach.For many low-income students, “Community colleges can get them started in higher education,” Fattah says.
But closer to home, Fattah still sees lingering challenges in his home state of Pennsylvania. A lifelong Philadelphia resident, Fattah attended city public schools, the Community College of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a master’s degree. He served in the Pennsylvania state House and Senate before he was elected to Congress in 1994.
Manufacturing jobs have disappeared in many cities throughout the state and the economic downturn is particularly hard on those with limited skills.
“The only way the state will continue to advance is to get more people in college,” he says.
To spur greater academic achievement in Philadelphia, Fattah touts the effectiveness of initiatives such as Project GRAD, which focuses on high school completion and successful transition to college. He also is active in College Opportunity Resources for Education (CORE), a citywide initiative to provide college scholarships to high school seniors. CORE helps approximately 2,000 city students per year, with a total of more than $25 million awarded in scholarships during the past six years.
Historically Black colleges and universities also can play a significant role in promoting access and success, he says. Pennsylvania’s higher education system includes two HBCUs, Lincoln and Cheyney universities.
While African-Americans attend many different postsecondary institutions, a higher percentage of students graduate from HBCUs.
“There’s something useful that comes out of the HBCU experience,” Fattah says, “that gives them confidence to continue in undergraduate study and go to graduate school.”
Yet challenges remain. Fattah pointed to a new national study stating that 75 percent of youth who want to join the military cannot do so because of a poor educational background.
“We have these isolated incidents of success across the country,” he says. “But we haven’t applied it across the board to our dropout factories.”
In Philadelphia and in Congress, he says, advocates must continue to press for expansion of initiatives that help low-income youth. “If you give students a pre-college summer experience, more grants and fewer loans, they can be successful at the college level.”