Representatives from Cleveland State Community College, the Bradley County Schools system and Country Music Television’s Empowering Education campaign kicked off a new program called the Gear Up Interest Group on Thursday night.
The new program will allow the parents of students at Lake Forest Middle School, Bradley Central High School and GOAL Academy, as well as students in Bradley County adult education programs, to receive “last-dollar” scholarships and other assistance to attend college.
The kickoff event took place at Lake Forest with barbecue and country music being offered before and after discussions of why people should pursue college educations.
Dr. Bill Seymour, CSCC president, said it all started when the college was talking with Bradley County Schools about ways to help promote the idea of attending college among local middle and high school students.
With Gov. Bill Haslam pushing the “Drive to 55” goal for 55 percent of Tennesseans to have college degrees by 2025, Seymour said they realized it was important to also help the parents of those students realize their college dreams.
“There’s a lot of attention being paid to traditional-aged students,” he said. “The adult students are one way we can reach that 55 percent.”
The new Gear Up Interest Group program will, in addition to scholarships, offer parents extra help like workshops and one-on-one meetings with someone who can help them navigate the beginnings of their college careers. He compared it to the existing Tennessee Achieves program for recent high school graduates and the Tennessee Promise program that will replace it next year.
Unlike Tennessee Achieves or Tennessee Promise, the new program is “being piloted” with parents of students in the Bradley County School system’s three Gear Up schools.
Seymour said the new program has been a source of excitement for the college’s staff, and it came to fruition after only about a month of planning.
After he spoke, three students from Cleveland State shared their stories with the audience. All of them had overcome difficulties, and all of them told the audience anyone could attend college.
Tracey Wright, the college’s director of special programs and community relations, said she had seen many people give up on their college goals because they believed getting into and starting college to be too difficult.
“Now is your time,” she said. “We’re going to help you do that.”
Adults in the Gear Up Interest Group receive scholarship funds in exchange for their time. They must take at least six credit hours worth of classes and attend two workshops on topics like money management and study skills each semester. Other requirements include having to spend at least two hours of volunteer service to their child’s school or the Gear Up Interest Group program each month.
They must also plan to graduate by the spring of 2018, when the youngest students who were at Lake Forest when it became a Gear Up school reach high school graduation age.
In 2012, the local school system received a “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs” grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It gave $846,300 to provide three local schools with large populations of low-income students with extra college readiness programming.
Patti Hunt, the school system’s grant coordinator, explained the grant has benefited students by offering things like college visits and career counseling.
She said the college is partnering with the school system to offer a “very unusual opportunity” to help the parents of students realize that they too can achieve their college dreams.
Hunt told a bit of her personal story and encouraged people to take advantage of the opportunity. She said she once found herself in her 40s with only one year of college under her belt and limited opportunities. She attended college and later began her career with the county schools at the age of 50.
“If something interests you, I guarantee you there is a program or a way you can do that,” Hunt said. “It is possible.”
The night’s event was sponsored by Country Music Television, which sponsors similar events across the country as a way to “give back” to viewers and promote higher education. Lucia Folk, CMT’s senior director of public affairs, said many of the channel’s viewers come from small towns with limited opportunities, and college can broaden people’s horizons.
The evening ended with a performance by country music band Judah and the Lion.
For more information about the Gear Up Interest Group program, call Cleveland State at 423-472-7141 or the Bradley County Schools central office at 423-476-0620.