In the year 2000, the “Principal for a Day” activity placed three community leaders with three Knox County Schools urban principals (dubbed “The 3 Ms”)—AE/Marion Quinn, Fulton/Mike Reynolds, Vine/Montina Jones. Those three community leaders were Laurens Tullock, Jimmy Haslam, and Bob Talbott. As they debriefed the day together, they described the hopelessness and low expectations they encountered; noting that some kids didn’t even expect to live to finish high school and college was not even a consideration. Those leaders asked the three principals what the larger community could do to help bring more hope and opportunities.
“The 3Ms” had already been regularly working together for years and had previously designed a diagram of what students in the urban schools need:
A Study Group, facilitated by Chrisi Haretos, was formed that started with eight (8) people and grew to 80+ people. Ronni Chandler was part of that initial study group, representing Pellissippi State Community College. Several options were considered, including in-school academies and Modern Red Schoolhouse. Mike Reynolds stumbled upon Project GRAD at a national Best Practices conference and got excited about the fit of the GRAD model when overlaid with the “3Ms” own Urban Schools Diagram. Project GRAD is a national initiative and federally authorized program that began in Houston, Texas, in 1988 as a scholarship program and focuses on supporting students from disadvantaged circumstances. The original model included full-time, site-based staff, scholarships/summer institutes, campus family support/parent board, math/reading/classroom management coaching and curricula.
The study group looked more closely at GRAD with several trips to see the original site in Houston TX, including one famous school bus ride from Knoxville to Nashville for a flight from Nashville to Houston sponsored by the Cornerstone Foundation. Montina Jones took the GRAD idea to KCS academic leader Sarah Simpson and she authorized development of a proposal. Jerry Hodges was hired as a consultant to pull the proposal together. Superintendent Charles Lindsay authorized the presentation of the proposal to the school board and the Knox County School Board voted in a unanimous vote to enter into a partnership with GRAD on August 1, 2001. The GRAD Knoxville non-profit was formed, a board seated and Jerry Hodges was hired as the founding Executive Director.
With that action in 2001, KCS partnered with GRAD to provide an additional layer of support for 7,500 students in 14 urban schools. Three main goals (referred to by Project GRAD Knoxville as our WIGS—Wildly Important Goals) guide the work: increased academic achievement, increased high school graduation rate and increased post-secondary enrollment and completion rate. The Knoxville Empowerment Zone boundaries were used to help determine the schools of greatest need: persistently under-performing academically, high poverty and low graduation rates. Austin East and Fulton (East and North) and the seven schools that feed into them (Green, Sarah Moore Greene, Vine, Belle Morris, Christenberry, Spring Hill, Whittle Springs) plus five elementary schools South and West of downtown that also serve students from challenging circumstances (Dogwood, South Knoxville, Beaumont, Lonsdale, Maynard), were identified as the inner-city schools to receive additional support through the GRAD partnership.
Those 14 schools serve zip codes with concentrated community challenges that included:
- Poverty/low wages
- Food deserts
- Lower educational attainment
- Health disparities
- High mobility
- Higher crime
- Lower home ownership
- Lower appreciation for and access to higher education
Unfortunately, since 2001, economic downturns have, in many instances, left these communities in worse shape than when Project GRAD Knoxville began. Therefore, the same challenges still exist today. Thus, all 14 original schools remain Project GRAD sites in the partnership’s second iteration, which began in 2013.
The question is not, ‘Is there STILL a need for an additional layer of support?’ But rather, ‘HOW do we meet those needs and opportunities with the current structures and resources?’ A great need for hope and opportunity still remains.
There have been results as GRAD, KCS, and the community work together.
- The combined high school graduation rate for Austin East/Fulton increased from 50% to 81%*
- The percent of students entering higher education from Austin East/Fulton has increased from less than 30% to 57%
- GRAD scholars are completing higher education at a rate that exceeds the national average for similar students: 47% for Austin East/Fulton combined compared to less than 10% nationally (cohorts 2005-2008)
- Academic improvement has been up and down (as assessments and curricula changed) and several schools have come off “the list”
- Tens of thousands of social service referrals have been handled, saving instructional time
- Systemic change has also occurred: the number of graduates attending the University of Tennessee from Austin East and Fulton has increased 400%; there is a growing college-going culture in urban communities; and the work of GRAD’s Student/Family Support helped pave the way for the Community Schools initiative in Knoxville
*projected final number (graduation rates are reported a year arrears)