July 12, 2017
By Vrondelia Chandler
Strong oak trees begin as tiny acorns. Similarly, those in K-12 education recognize it takes more than a decade to cultivate a graduate who successfully enters higher education and completes a post-secondary degree or credential.
Despite this awareness and the great strides taken to improve educational outcomes for our students, much work remains to ensure all students reap the benefits of post-secondary attainment.
Complete Tennessee’s recent report, "Room To Grow: Regional Perspectives on Higher Education Improvement," contributes to solution-focused dialogue concerning core issues that must be addressed to include communities across the state in the Drive to 55, Gov. Bill Haslam’s goal of equipping 55 percent of Tennesseans with a post-secondary credential by 2025.
We’ve made progress in implementing programs that support this important goal.
Tennessee Promise has pioneered access by providing free community college for high school graduates who are citizens. Tennessee Reconnect is poised to do the same for returning adult citizens. The statewide rebranding of the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology recognized the strengths of these technical institutions and changed the conversation about “going to college” in Tennessee.
The “Innovation Valley” initiative, East Tennessee’s regional economic development partnership managed by the Knoxville Chamber, effectively markets job opportunities across the region. Mobile resources like the Career Coach bus and the Advanced Manufacturing trailer bring opportunities to our school’s doorsteps. The connections between these diverse resources must be recognized.
Our education system is like a home piping system, filled with various functions and intersections but connected by a common goal. Students flow from birth to pre-K; through elementary, middle and high school; and ideally into post-secondary before landing in a strong labor market. We are not talking about disjointed pipes.
Unfortunately, pipes sometimes leak, and it is important to carefully inspect those places. Regional barriers to attainment and completion, like those highlighted in Complete Tennessee’s report, represent leaks in our systems, offering opportunities to address the reasons we lose some students.
Students living in poverty face additional barriers. The lack of basic needs, pressure of being the first in their family to pursue college, and limited exposure to the professional world are three in an extensive list. Students of color must also navigate challenges that daily assault their sense of self. The effects of unstable homes and communities are not left behind when students enter the schoolhouse doors, and those environments await them when the final bell rings.
While the challenges are daunting, the Knoxville region benefits from being a collaborative and generous community. We have made great progress in supporting our students and achieving improved outcomes, but we must do more.
We must help build self-esteem and emotional learning skills so students of all ages will have the confidence to reach beyond the status quo.
We must continue conversations with education and industry at the same table to ensure preparation meets workforce needs. We must reimagine our classrooms from industrial assembly lines to collaborative, flexible arrangements.
We must develop skills that help us know students’ and value their stories and personal barriers. We must provide the financial support our public schools need in order to thrive.
Finally, we must personally offer our own time, talent, and treasure in very specific ways. Every individual can plant a seed. Every individual can make a difference.
Vrondelia Chandler is the executive director/CEO of Project GRAD Knoxville, a K-16 nonprofit partnership focused on high school graduation and post-secondary completion.