Innovation Fund Highlight: Gwinnett County Public Schools Gear Up for Graduation

February 10, 2017

By Jaclyn Colona

In 2011, the Innovation Fund began as a $19.4 million competitive grant program created under Georgia’s Race to the Top (RT3) Plan. After RT3’s completion in 2014, Governor Nathan Deal appropriated state funding to continue Georgia’s investment in innovative programs. Since its inception, the Innovation Fund has invested over $31 million in public education entities to plan, implement, or scale unique programs to improve student achievement and confront our state’s most significant education challenges.

In the 2006-2007 school year, Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) faced one of these challenges.  During that school year, only 13% of over-age GCPS students entering ninth grade graduated from high school.[1] To address this problem, GCPS created the Gear Up for Graduation program (formerly known as the STEM Targeted Education Program). [2]  Gear Up for Graduation supports over-age eighth graders – defined as students entering high school at age 15 or older – in catching up with their grade-level peers.       

In 2012, GCPS received a $1 million RT3 Innovation Fund grant to implement Gear Up for Graduation at two middle schools.[3] The district then received Innovation Fund scaling grants in fiscal years (FY) 2015 and 2017 to scale the program to two additional schools. After four years of implementation, the program has led over 400 students to get back on track to graduation, and students have shown positive outcomes in academic motivation and interest, as well as college and career aspirations. This education update describes the Gear Up for Graduation program model, GCPS’ approach to scaling the program, program outcomes, and next steps.

How It All Started: Moore and Sweetwater Middle Schools

In 2012, GCPS used its RT3 grant to implement Gear Up for Graduation at Moore and Sweetwater Middle Schools, both located in Lawrenceville, Georgia. The program targeted 80 over-age eighth grade students from four area middle schools within the Berkmar High School Cluster.[4] Gear Up for Graduation accelerated the academic year by teaching eighth grade standards in the fall semester and ninth grade standards in the spring semester, allowing over-age students the chance to bypass ninth grade and enter high school as sophomores.

To increase academic engagement, Gear Up for Graduation developed a STEM-centered curriculum to engage students in experiments, projects, and fieldtrips.[5] A partnership with Gwinnett Technical College allowed students to participate in STEM-focused field experiences and hands-on learning – leading to the possibility for dual-enrollment with the college when students enter 12th grade. In addition, the program focused on building students’ skills in the areas of motivation, self-management, and persistence, by emphasizing student collaboration and promoting strong teacher-student relationships.

During year one, the Moore and Sweetwater Middle School pilot experienced some challenges with the model that prompted key changes to Gear Up for Graduation for year two and beyond. One change was for teachers to more effectively navigate students through the program’s blended learning component.[6] Students in the first-year pilot experienced some difficulty with self-direction when it came to the online modules, and the district decided that teachers should provide more face-to-face instruction as students adapted to blended learning. Additionally, Gear Up for Graduation’s curriculum embedded eighth grade standards into ninth grade standards, so that both academic years could be seamlessly taught as one, rather than teaching each grade’s content in two separate semesters.

Scaling the Program: Lilburn Middle School

In 2014, GCPS received a $197,700 Innovation Fund scaling grant to replicate the program at a new location – Lilburn Middle School. Lilburn Middle School feeds into Meadowcreek High School, which had GCPS’ lowest graduation rate in 2012-2013.[7] The district made some key changes to the program when scaled at Lilburn Middle School. GCPS hired an additional mathematics instructor to better target and address students’ needs, as the previous renditions of the program at Moore and Sweetwater Middle Schools showed that students struggled most with this content area. Given that Lilburn Middle School had more time to plan for the program, administrators were also able to strategically staff the school with teachers who had experience with at-risk student populations. Finally, Lilburn’s program required students to wear uniforms, which school leaders report has led to increased school pride and engagement. Lilburn Middle School reported such success with uniforms that the Moore and Sweetwater Middle School Gear Up for Graduation programs incorporated them in the 2016-2017 academic year.

Gear Up for Graduation Outcomes

Gear Up for Graduation’s innovative approach has yielded positive outcomes in most targeted areas.  Several of these outcomes are highlighted below.

  • As seen in the graph below, the percentage of students who intend to pursue a post-secondary degree increased by 15 percentage points at Sweetwater and Moore Middle Schools and by almost 8 percentage points at Lilburn Middle School.[8]   
  • From the first year of implementation at Moore and Sweetwater Middle Schools to the scaled program at Lilburn Middle School, the rate for students completing the program as sophomores has jumped 27.8 percentage points, from 71.2% to 99%.
  • Students report high levels of satisfaction with the program. The average percentage of students enrolled in Gear Up for Graduation between 2012 and 2016 who rated the program as good or excellent is 85%.
  • The Applied Learning Student Questionnaire (ALSQ) measures growth in student problem solving, communication skills, self-management, and engagement. For each year of implementation, Gear Up for Graduation students showed statistically significant gains in intrinsic motivation, self-regulation and management, and intent to persist.[9]


To assess its main goal of increasing the graduation rate of over-age students, GCPS compares the academic outcomes of Gear Up for Graduation students’ to a group of over-age students that did not participate in the program.[10]  Based on the longitudinal data, Gear Up for Graduation has increased the likelihood that students will graduate from high school. Of the 120 students who completed Gear Up for Graduation during the 2012-2013 academic year, 61% either already have or will soon graduate, compared to 45% of comparison group students. More specifically, 54 Gear Up for Graduation students graduated within three years with an average grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 out of a four-point scale.

Looking Ahead

Between 2012 and 2016, Gear Up for Graduation has offered over 400 students the opportunity to get back on track to graduate. On October 11, 2016, Governor Deal announced that GCPS was one of 18 FY17 Innovation Fund grant recipients. GCPS will use its nearly $294,000 FY17 Innovation Fund grant to scale the Gear Up for Graduation program to Summerour Middle School. Summerour anticipates serving 100 students in the program’s first year.

The new Gear Up for Graduation site is just one more example of how GCPS has strategically scaled the program throughout the district.  GCPS uses assessment data, student demographic information, and graduation rates to implement the program in the clusters with the most need.  In addition, the district selects schools located in areas that may serve as an option for students in neighboring schools. Using this method, GCPS hopes to reach as many over-age students as possible.


[1] Race to the Top Grant Application, Gwinnett County Public Schools, 2011.

[2] STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

[3] In addition to the Innovation Fund grant, funding from the Gwinnett County Public School District, Gwinnett County Foundation, and Cisco was used to implement the program.

[4] Moore Middle School served students from Moore Middle School and Richards Middle School, and Sweetwater Middle School served students from Sweetwater Middle School and Berkmar Middle School.

[5] In May 2013, STEP Academy students at Moore Middle School and Sweetwater Middle School students visited Gwinnett Technical College, Maxwell High School of Technology, Grayson Technical Program, and the Georgia Aquarium. In November 2014, STEP Academy students at Sweetwater MS attended a field trip to Grayson Tech.

[6] Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace, and at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home. In addition, the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience. Blended learning is NOT simply placing technology in the classroom or providing students access to online courses. Blended learning utilizes technology to restructure traditional school models, promote data-driven and individualized instruction, leverage the strengths of effective educators, and advance student achievement. (Definition adapted from The Clayton Christensen Institute)

[7] Innovation Fund Scaling Grant Application, Gwinnett County Public Schools, 2014.

[8] For applied learning grantees like GCPS, GOSA administers the Applied Learning Student Questionnaire (ALSQ), a retrospective survey designed to measure student growth in intrinsic motivation, self-management skills, and intent to persist.  The survey also measures changes in students’ postsecondary career aspirations. Based on the ALSQ, the percentage of students enrolled in Gear Up at Sweetwater and Moore Middle Schools between 2012 and 2016 intending to seek a post-secondary degree before the program is 77.6%. The percentage of students intending to seek a post-secondary degree after Gear Up is 92.6%. At Lilburn Middle School, the percentage of students enrolled in Gear Up in 2015-2016 intending to seek a post-secondary degree before the program is 83.9%. The percentage of students intending to seek a post-secondary degree after Gear Up is 91.5%.

[9] The Applied Learning Student Questionnaire (ALSQ) measures growth in student problem solving, communication skills, self-management, and engagement. Intrinsic motivation is defined as motivation stemming from goals of mastery, learning, and challenge. Self-regulation and management is effortful and persistent behaviors that are used to guide, monitor, and direct the success of one’s learning and performance. Intent to persist are aspirations, plans, and goals to pursue additional education and a career in STEM.

[10] Students who did not participate in the Gear Up programs attended middle schools located in areas not served by the program.