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Melissa LopezRegion One Education Service Center's Gear Up Partnership
At one of 20 Education Service Centers in Texas, Melissa Lopez serves as an Education Specialist for GEAR UP, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to local school districts. In 2011, Region One ESC was awarded its third GEAR UP grant – a federal grant by the U.S. Department of Education to help underrepresented, low socioeconomic students graduate from high school and attend college. Financial Literacy is one of the components that was included as part of this grant. "We are located in Deep South Texas, near the Mexican border," says Melissa. "Our community has some of the lowest credit scores and is among the most unbanked and underbanked in the nation."
The GEAR UP Program assists a cohort of students from seventh grade through their senior year in high school. This year, the cohort consists of 10,500 students attending 30 high schools. Approximately 90% of those students are economically disadvantaged, 39% are English language learners and 6% are migrant. "In previous GEAR UP cycles, we have focused on financial aid. With this grant, we have placed an emphasis on financial literacy as well," Melissa explains. She first started out as a GEAR UP Facilitator, where she served as a counselor at one of the partnership high schools and provided direct services to her cohort students and their families. She scheduled college trips, tracked academic performance, hired tutors and provided counseling services to cohort students to ensure that they were academically prepared to graduate and enroll in a post-secondary institution.
For the past nine years, she has served as an Education Specialist with GEAR UP program at the regional level to support the campus-based facilitators and plan educational events like large scale conferences with breakout sessions, classroom presentations, family evening events and cyber mentoring via videoconferencing and webinars. Melissa also helped establish and is currently the lead for the Deep South Texas Financial Literacy Alliance. Alliance members include leaders from nine local banking institutions (including two credit unions), two institutions of higher education and community and government agencies that have donated time, money and resources. Together, they survey students and parents to assess which financial literacy topics they would like to learn more about and plan future events based on that data.
The biggest financial literacy event Melissa organizes is the annual Financial Literacy Summit. This past year, the Summit was attended by students and their families, business leaders and representatives from Congressman Ruben Hinojosa's office, The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the Texas Council on Economic Education and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Banking partners set up informational tables and have an opportunity to network with the participants. There are about 10 rooms each dedicated to a different financial topic including: credit and credit card management, wants vs. needs, and earning power. Because of the large Spanish-speaking population, many sessions are given in both English and Spanish, or are accompanied by translators.
Other popular events the organization holds are family evening events. "Rather than a traditional sit and get session, we wanted to present important financial literacy concepts in a more engaging format," says Melissa. Local colleges provide access to their facilities and staff at no cost for these events. For some students and their parents, it's their first time stepping onto a college campus. Last year's event theme was a scavenger hunt. Students and their parents were given a map of the campus and a list of information to find. For example, they were instructed to find the Admission's Office and ask what the criteria are for enrollment. About 100 people attend the family evening events, which are held in different geographic locations throughout the region.
During her 12 years working for GEAR UP, Melissa has learned a tremendous amount about financial literacy that has greatly impacted her own life. "It has been an eye-opening experience," she says. "I've learned so much over the years. I've learned that a child who has a college savings account is much more likely to attend college, especially if the account is in his or her name. I now have a college savings account in my twins' names. I share these facts and lessons any time I have an opportunity to be in front of students, parents and educators as well a through social media, to show that if I can do it, so can others."
Melissa hopes that students graduate from college debt free, and that they are wise financial consumers. "I hope the entire community, not just students, is financially savvy and ready to make well-informed decisions."
Practical Money Skills would like to commend Melissa Lopez for her ongoing efforts and commitment to financial literacy at GEAR UP in Edinburg, Texas.
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