Robbie Kuykendall
GEAR UP Coordinator

Sonna Young
GEAR UP Coordinator

Last year Lufkin ISD received a highly competitive discretionary grant for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant is in year two of a seven-year cycle with Robbie Kuykendall and Sonna Young at the helm as Gear Up Coordinators. The multimillion-dollar grant is in collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) and begins with sixth and seventh graders and will continue until their high school graduation.

Young was an eighth grade Resource Reading Language Arts Teacher at Lufkin Middle School before taking the GEAR UP Coordinator position in January. Although she enjoyed being in the classroom, she feels that this position allows her to help parents and students on a larger scale.

Kuykendall was a Site Coordinator for the afterschool program at Slack Elementary before taking on the new role. She said it’s helping students in a different way than she did before. She has the opportunity to encourage students to take more challenging courses that could impact their future.

The GEAR UP program coordinators create activities, such as a series of educational summer camps, to promote awareness of post-secondary education opportunities. The program aims to increase cohort students’ academic performance, enrollment in advanced placement courses, graduation rates, and matriculation to and success in post-secondary education. 

Kuykendall heads up the program for students who will graduate in 2028, and Young heads up the current seventh graders who will graduate in 2029. The two stay busy planning, scheduling college tours, organizing vendors to come to the campus, and preparing financial literacy programs. They are both currently housed at Lufkin Middle School but Kukendall will move up to the high school next year when her eighth grade cohort become freshmen.

“It’s not just about college but a career,” Young said. “Even in middle school, students can do job shadowing to determine if this is something they want to do. They can see it before they choose and can have a better understanding.”

“It’s not so much about “pick a major” it’s more about “what is your interest?”,” Kuykendall said. “We are launching Xello, a program to help drill down on their interests, their personalities and learning style. From there we can talk about majors and which colleges have those majors and what college classes to take.”

Young says that doing this kind of research early saves time and money.

“The Xello program builds on each year,” Young said. There are surveys and self assessments. The next year the student may chose a major. Then it saves the information on a platform so the student can look back and see if they played a sport or look at things that were important to them. We want them to form a routine of using the platform even at home.”

Kuykendall said it’s fun for the students, and they can build communities.

“We’re even having a Xello Night where parents can come see the program,” she said. “National Gear Up Week is the last week in September so be looking for activities then, too.”

“We encourage students and teachers to access,” Young said. It’s free and they can use it anytime even when they’re not in school. If it’s a student who will do it on their own, they have a live tutor that uses the student’s textbook or current notes from their teachers. Teachers can assign time to use the program, we get a report at the end of the month for usage.”

Kuykendall said the best part of the program for her is getting to know the students and making sure they know they are a resource for them.

“I’m looking forward to getting the eighth graders ready to transition to high school,” she said. “The students and their families, whatever that looks like, showing them all the resources.

Young feels like the two have learned a lot over the past seven months and are ready to continue to execute the program.

“We are looking forward to a great year now that we’ve started,” Kuykendall said. “The staff and students are getting used to seeing us.”

This is the fifth time Lufkin ISD  has received a GEAR UP grant, which has supported nearly 3,000 Lufkin ISD students with more than $10 million in federal grant funds over the years.