Planting Seeds

Ronni Chandler addresses the school board

Planting Seeds

20 years on, Project GRAD continues to look for new ways to open opportunities to Knox County’s most challenged students.

by jesse fox mayshark • January 19, 2021


Project GRAD Executive Director Ronni Chandler addresses the school board on Jan. 6.

There are a lot of things you can learn in a summer internship. For one Knox County student Ronni Chandler remembers, the takeaway from his experience at an office job was that he didn’t want an office job.

A once-endangered program will mark its 20th anniversary this year.

“He discovered about himself that what he really wanted was a mix of being inside and in the field, because he did not want to be in the building all day long,” said Chandler, the longtime executive director of Project GRAD Knoxville.

It is the kind of realization that Project GRAD has been helping to create since 2001 — a sense of what possibilities lie beyond high school, and how to achieve them. 

The local program will mark its 20th anniversary this August. Working with students at Austin-East and Fulton high schools, and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them, Project GRAD builds awareness of education and career options after high school. It also provides scholarships for students who enroll in two-year, four-year or trade and career schools.

Along the way, it gives high school students the chance to enroll in week-long summer institutes at Pellissippi State Community College and the University of Tennessee, so they can experience college campuses and classrooms first-hand.

“Qualitatively, you can’t measure it in words,” said Dorian McCoy, an associate professor of higher education at UT Knoxville who co-directs the summer institute there. “Because what the students will tell us is ‘If it were not for Project GRAD Knoxville and the Pellissippi summer institute and the UT summer institute, I would never have known what higher education is like.’”

Chandler presented the nonprofit organization’s annual report to the Knox County school board at its Jan. 6 work session. The school system provides $700,000 a year to fund Project GRAD’s high school staff, with the remainder of its $1.5 million budget coming from donations and grants.

Since last year, Project GRAD Knoxville has been under the umbrella of the newly formed Knox Education Foundation, which also runs Community Schools programs in 16 elementary and middle schools. 

The program was proposed for elimination from the school system budget in 2018 in the face of revenue shortfalls, but community outcry helped keep it alive.

“Young people stood up for themselves, and they saw a whole community stand up for them,” Chandler said of the packed crowds at school board meetings during that budget fight. “That was amazing. And it was affirmation of their worth and their value to the total community.”

The result was a five-year memorandum of agreement with Knox County Schools, establishing performance goals for metrics including graduation rates and post-secondary enrollment rates.

The report Chandler presented last week showed the program meeting or exceeding most of those goals. The graduation rate at Fulton — while down from the previous year — was 80.3 percent, well above the goal of 74.5 percent. Post-secondary enrollment rates of graduating students was 50.8 percent at Fulton and 49.6 percent at Austin-East, both above their goals. 

The exception was the graduation rate at Austin-East, which declined last year from 81.1 percent to 78.2 percent, just missing the goal of 78.8 percent. Chandler thinks that probably had to do with the end-of-year disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Even the district (as a whole) went from 91.2 percent to 91 percent,” she said. “I’m sure there are other factors, but that absolutely played into it.”

After two decades, Chandler said Project GRAD is still looking for new ideas and approaches. Its summer internships remain popular with students, who emerge from them with real-world work experiences. And it is preparing to launch a pilot program summer institute with a social justice theme for middle-school students, who will be able to spend a week living on the UT campus.

The program has been running long enough now that some of its graduates have emerged in the next generation of community leadership. Chandler noted that Rev. Sam Brown, the new president of the Knoxville branch of the NAACP, is a GRAD alumnus. He has recently joined the organization’s board.

Another is school board member Evetty Satterfield, whose district includes Austin-East and most of its feeder schools. Satterfield said she has seen Project GRAD evolve over time as the makeup of the students it serves has changed. It now includes a growing number of refugee and immigrant children.

“Project GRAD has been sort of forced to pivot to the needs of the students, and that’s not always being recognized,” Satterfield said.

For example, when school board Chair Susan Horn last week asked Chandler about a dip in the percentage of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at Austin-East, Chandler said it was because non-citizen students are in most cases not eligible for federal aid.

“Those families can't qualify for federal financial aid or Tennessee Promise or those opportunities that we make sure kids connect to,” Chandler said. “And so we're helping provide post-secondary connections to places that can take them further.”

McCoy said that from his perspective at UT, the program is a vital outreach to young people who might not otherwise consider college as a possibility. 

“It plants a seed,” he said, “and that seed often sprouts into earning a degree. And for many of them, they go on to earn graduate degrees, they go on to earn professional degrees.”

UT and Pellissippi State both value the program enough to support their annual summer institutes out of their own budgets. 

“Many institutions talk about being inclusive and providing access for underrepresented students,” McCoy said. “Transition and bridge programs such as Project GRAD are without a doubt worth every dollar spent.”

Chandler said the new structure with Project GRAD under the umbrella of the Knox Education Foundation has freed up her and her staff to focus on the educational mission and spend less time on private fundraising.

“I think that it actually provides opportunities for future growth, as more resources become available in better times,” she said. “This provides the opportunity to serve more kids, as additional resources are provided.”