A $13.8 million federal grant awarded to the Lafayette Parish School System is being used to provide middle school students with support and experiences that will prepare them both academically and socially for college, school officials said.

For the second time, the school system received a federal GEAR UP grant, which funds support several services that continue through a student’s middle and high school years and into the beginning of their collegiate experience.

The $13.8 million grant, which became effective in the fall 2014, will reach 2,100 sixth and seventh grade students, providing them with access to in-school and special summer learning programs, including campus visits.

The school system held a meeting with its community partners Wednesday morning on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus to celebrate the award and discuss initiatives for the new grant cycle.

The school system collaborates with UL-Lafayette, South Louisiana Community College and other community and business partners to provide students experiences through the program to prepare them for life after high school.

That collaboration is what led to the school system’s successful application to receive a federal grant for the program for a second time, said Traci Aucoin, GEAR UP director.

Forty grants were awarded, Aucoin said, with the majority directed to college campuses and 12 awarded to school systems, she said.

She said the school system has targeted six middle schools in the parish with a large population of underserved students: Acadian, Carencro, Judice, Lafayette, Paul Breaux and Scott Middle schools.

The GEAR UP program was launched in 1998 with a focus on improving college access to low-income students who would become the first from their family to go to college.

That mission has shifted from the idea of making college more accessible to preparing those same students both academically and socially to succeed in college, said the event’s keynote speaker, Alex Chough, who is vice president for government relations for the National Council for Community and Education Partnership.

“GEAR UP has never been needed more than today,” Chough said.

He cited statistics that 20 percent of low-income students complete college within six years, as compared to 42 percent of high-income students. The gap is larger among students who complete their degrees within four years, with 40 percent of low-income students and 78 percent of high-income students completing their studies and receiving a degree in that time period.

Chough described the statistic as troubling because low-income students are five times more likely to get out of poverty with a college degree.

“No one’s going to fix the college readiness gap for us ... It’s going to be our responsibility. It’s going to be expressed in our daily work and chipping away at it one student at a time,” Chough said.

He also shared college enrollment among GEAR UP students: 59.9 percent in 2011; 62.2 in 2012; and 75.3 percent in 2013.

The transition to college life became more real for Alia Franklin when she was a 12-year-old Lafayette Middle School student. Franklin was in the first corps of GEAR UP students.

Franklin and GEAR UP alumni, Dre’an Keller, Jamila Dugas, and Caden Jones shared with the crowd how the program helped prepare them to reach their goal of going to college. All four are wrapping up their freshman year at UL-Lafayette.

“The first time I toured UL, I was in the seventh grade and it was a such a big transition from middle school to college. It was eye-opening,” said the 18-year-old Franklin, who is majoring in public relations.

Later, she told the audience, “I felt like a college student long before I enrolled.”

Dugas, 18, is majoring in mass communications and public relations and Jones, 19, is a computer science major. Both said GEAR UP gave them the opportunity to visit colleges where they had the opportunity to speak to professors and students, which added to their understanding about how different their experiences in high school would be from college.

Keller said those experiences, including overnight stays on campuses to experience early wake-up calls for classes, added to the realism and the responsibilities she’d face.

“When I used to think about college, it was more about what I saw on TV,” said Keller, who is 19 and a hospitality management major. “In school, you get up and you must catch the bus at a certain time and get to school at a certain time and if you don’t then someone follows up and tracks you down. In college, it’s your responsibility.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.