Oklahoma has received a $5.2 million AmeriCorps Education Award to recruit, train and place mentors and tutors in Oklahoma schools next year, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education announced recently.
If the program is successful, Oklahoma could receive awards totaling more than $15 million over three years.
Regents noted that Oklahoma's Education Award is the largest currently being funded by the Corporation for National Service, which oversees the AmeriCorps program. It will fund Smart Start for Brain Gain, which places 3,600 volunteers in four mentoring and tutoring programs the State Regents are currently developing.
"Oklahoma is building a strong foundation for mentoring and tutoring programs, and the Education Awards program combined with the programs currently in place will make a significant impact statewide," said Nancy Sharrock, executive director of the Oklahoma Community Service Commission. "The Commission looks forward to expanding service opportunities to more college students across the state and watching their work make a positive difference."
Regents noted that the goals of Smart Start are to encourage greater participation in mentoring programs as well as increase the number of Oklahomans who attend college and earn a degree.
The Education Award will enable participating mentors and tutors to contribute to the educational success of Oklahoma children and their community while earning an award to pay for college or repay student loans. In some instances, college student mentors will even be able to earn college credit for their work.
"Smart Start builds on the Regents' Brain Gain 2010 initiative to increase the number of Oklahomans with a college degree," said Chancellor Hans Brisch. "Studies show that young people who have mentors often raise their educational goals and expectations and are more likely to stay in school and go on to college than those without mentors."
Specifically, the Education Award will leverage a $20.5 million, five-year grant Oklahoma received last year from the U.S. Department of Education for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP). This program is designed to better prepare middle and high school students for college through mentoring programs as well as through scholarships and new college preparation and awareness programs for students and parents.
"We are currently in the process of implementing GEAR UP activities statewide. Now we can put even more mentors in schools and further expand educational opportunities," Brisch said. "Thousands of young students will benefit from this Education Award as they work with mentors and tutors to better prepare for college and life after high school."
The Regents will also use the Education Award to leverage college and university expansion of America Counts and America Reads, which provide math and reading tutors for first- through ninth-grade students through the need-based Federal Work Study Program. It will fund incentives for students who wish to participate in these programs but do not qualify for work-study support.
Mentors and tutors will also participate through the Adult Learner Focused Institution initiative, a program established by the State Regents in partnership with the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning and Oklahoma business and industry to better meet the higher education needs of adult students and businesses across the state. Through this program, adult college students will mentor other adult students and encourage them to earn a degree. Mentors may also meet tutoring needs in local schools.
"Smart Start will help the State Regents achieve our goal of increasing the number of adults attending college by supporting them academically, socially and financially through this adult-focused program," said State Regents Chairman Bill W. Burgess Jr. "These volunteers will have the opportunity to not only help meet the needs of their peers and local communities, but also earn college credit for their tutoring efforts."
In an effort to reduce student loan default rates in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Guaranteed Student Loan Program will participate in Smart Start by giving borrowers the opportunity to serve as mentors, tutors or higher education information service providers in Oklahoma schools. Participants will be able to apply an Education Award to their outstanding loan balance.
"The Education Award offers a win-win for all involved," Burgess said. "It is a positive way to strengthen Oklahoma schoolchildren's academic skills and, at the same time, offer mentors and tutors the opportunity to contribute to student success while working toward their own educational goals."
AmeriCorps is a national volunteer organization that allows members to receive an Education Award that pays all or part of the cost of attending qualified institutions of higher education or repays qualified existing or future student loans.
The GEAR UP grant was awarded to Oklahoma in August 1999 and has been matched by more than $25 million from state and partner resources. With funds totaling $45.5 million, GEAR UP receives 45 percent of total funding from the federal government and 55 percent from other organizations.