College readiness program gears up for new start in 2019

Claire Scarborough, Production Editor

When the trials of the former leaders of South Dakota’s GEAR UP, previously run by Mid-Central Education Cooperative, wrapped up in early 2018, it seemed to many like the end of GEAR UP’s chapter in South Dakota. South Dakotans don’t realize GEAR UP is still alive and well, and being ran on Black Hills State University’s campus, albeit after undergoing a complete overhaul.

“All the positions, anybody that worked for GEAR UP had to interview again,” Dr. Peg Diekhoff, project manager for GEAR UP, said. “One person had, had some experience with GEAR UP, but that person is no longer here. Everybody is all new to the program.”

GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, became synonymous with scandal in 2015 after one of the organization’s former administrators from Platte killed his wife and four children before setting their house on fire and committing suicide. The tragedy resulted in the discovery of over $1 million embezzled from Mid-Central and widespread misconduct on all levels of the program. GEAR UP, which the Board of Regents took over after 2015, has worked to make sure those mistakes don’t have the chance to occur again.

Diekhoff said,“One thing that BHSU is really cognizant of being transparent and that we brought back some integrity and rebuilt that trust with our partner schools. We work with our state director on a daily basis. The state director, when we turn a claim in, goes through every claim that we have. We document everything that happens and everything we spend. One of the main emphases is making fiscally responsible decisions, so making sure everything is tied to carrying out the program.”

Rebuilding trust has been a primary goal for the new leaders of GEAR UP. After an official state audit was conducted, South Dakota’s Auditor General Martin Guindon spoke to the state Executive Board.

The Mitchell Republic, which covered the investigation since 2015, reported Guindon said, “Funds Scott Westerhuis stole from Mid-Central came from the 14 school districts in the cooperative, not the GEAR UP program.”

The audit also found that while GEAR UP money might have been misused, the embezzlement, that ultimately resulted in Mid-Central’s contract cancellation, came from the school districts Mid-Central served.

After the completion of the trials for other leaders involved in the scandal, project managers on BHSU’s campus have focused on their roots, at-risk students.

Program Coordinator Murray Lee was drawn to apply for one of GEAR UP’s open positions largely due to how the program “works with students and families, preferably Native American families.”

The program serves 10 high schools and 13 middle schools throughout 13 different school districts. According to the official GEAR UP materials, the program’s main goal is to “significantly increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.”

Three years after the beginning of the end, the program shares almost no similarities with the past, except in name. What used to be overseen by the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative is now ran by the Board of Regents. Nobody from the old program housed in East River has a position at the new location in the Black Hills. Every expense possible has a system of checks and balances, all to make sure the mission of helping low-income students remains top priority.