Banner Staff Writer
Graham Thomas, director of college access for Tennessee Achieves, spoke on the program at the Kiwanis luncheon Thursday afternoon.
“We are very fortunate in this community to have a program called Tennessee Achieves,” said Gary Farlow, the July program chairman.
“We hope this is a program that is going to benefit our workforce for a very long time. It fills a gap in our workforce development training that we have needed for a very long time, as well.”
According to Thomas, the program began as an economic development initiative out of Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s office in 2008. Representatives from Oak Ridge National Laboratory said for the first time ever they were without the necessary workforce and asked Ragsdale how he could help.
“We went back to the Knox County public high schools where we were graduating 3,500 students every year,” Thomas said. “What we saw were 1,200 of these students were not pursuing any type of postsecondary type of education.”
The 1,200 students became the program’s target group.
According to Thomas, this group tended to have lower GPAs, lower SAT scores, and parents who were busy working around the clock.
“We decided money was the first barrier these students faced,” Thomas said. “So we came up with this idea to give the students a Last Dollar Scholarship to one of the three local community colleges in the Knox area.”
uch scholarships cover unmet financial needs not already covered, up to a certain amount.
Out of the 1,200 students, 497 applied and 308 of those students were put in college in fall 2008. Thomas said the program facilitators soon realized the second barrier was a lack of support from home.
“We began going out to any meeting that would have us with active community members,” Thomas said.
“We recruited volunteers to work with these students for 12 or 15 hours a year to help these students eliminate the barriers associated with post-secondary access.”
Due to its success, knoxAchieves was charged with the task of expanding the program statewide, the tnAchieves website said.
“Last year, between the three high schools in Bradley County, the program had 320 students sign up. There are about 180 of those students starting at Cleveland Sate this fall,” Thomas said. “These are huge members and much larger than we expected. ... It has been a huge success.”
According to Thomas, the biggest part of the program is the mentor component.
“I think if we just gave them the money and said go, they would never step foot on a college campus. They are ready to go to college, but when the first road block comes up and they do not have anyone to turn to then they quit. Our mentors are there to make sure that does not happen.”
Mentors are there to remind students of all meetings and deadlines. According to tnAchieves “effective mentor,” list, mentors are expected to attend all meetings their students are expected to attend, encourage students to reach their potential, and assist students with community service opportunities, among other requirements.
“College-age students are not necessarily the easiest group of people to work with,” Thomas said. “They can be frustrating at times.”
Thomas said even Ragsdale had an issue with the students on occasion.
“He came in one day and said, ‘I keep calling and calling and calling. I am the mayor, they have to call me back, right?’ So we said, ‘Mayor do you know how to text?’ We sent out a mass text to all four students and within 20 minutes all four had responded,” Thomas said. “It’s about creating relationships and establishing that line of communication, whatever that may look like.”
Thomas said another mentor is an 83-year-old retired military man who does not text, but will call his students every two weeks.
“We are excited at Cleveland State because it allows us to give students another opportunity to engage them in higher education and job training. It is a big part of what we are about as a community college,” said Dr. C. Michael Stokes, vice president for student services.
“Being a mentor helps give that extra push to students who do not know where to turn.”
For more information on either becoming a scholar or a mentor, visit tnachieves.org.