The Niswonger Foundation, with the help of a federal i3 grant and video-teleconferencing technology, aims to bring more access and opportunity to Northeast Tennessee
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September 15, 2011—Those who closely follow unemployment and education trends in American have a lot to be dismayed about. As most Americans have heard and as nearly ten percent of the labor force today knows first-hand, the last few years have been a time of persistent joblessness. As perhaps fewer Americans are aware, the national public high-school graduation rate has slipped from its peak of 77 percent in 1969 to about 72 percent graduating on time in 2008 (the most recent year with reliable numbers) and only 37.9 percent of American adults have two- or four-year college degrees. Once the world leader in number of young adults with college degrees, the U.S. now ranks twelfth among 36 developed nations. While U.S. numbers slip, the attainment rates for nearly every other nation are increasing. The U.S. is one of the few nations in the world in which younger adults are not better educated than their elders. None of this is good news for a country intent on remaining competitive in the global economy.
The news is even worse in northeastern Tennessee.
Here, the graduation rate is 61 percent and unemployment is 16 percent. Less than 10 percent of adults have a college degree. Since 2001, the Niswonger Foundation has been working to reverse these numbers with a mission to spur individual and community growth through education. Created by businessman and philanthropist Scott M. Niswonger, the Greeneville, TN, non-profit is both a grant-making and operating foundation with its own projects and programs.
The Niswonger Foundation’s work gets a BIG validation: $21 million
Last year, the foundation’s efforts were validated—and energized—in a big way. A really big way. The Niswonger Foundation received a $17.8 million “Investing in Innovation” (known as “i3” for short) Grant from the U. S. Department of Education, one of only 49 chosen out of the 1,697 nationally that applied. The grants are a $650 million experiment by the U.S. Department of Education to encourage partnerships between school districts and the non-profit sector in a nationwide effort to identify and grow the most promising education ideas. The projects, which require 20 percent matching funding from the private sector (bringing the total to $21.4 million), are on a three- to five-year trajectory and are less than a year underway.
“When there’s that many applicants and you’re one of the few chosen, that’s incredible validation. Look at the other recipients: Harvard, John Hopkins, the Smithsonian Institution. The names are incredible. Niswonger is among a pretty elite group,” says Niswonger Foundation Director of School Partnerships Linda Irwin. “When the Department of Education made the announcement, the surge of traffic almost shut our website down.”
Sharing expertise and increasing student competitiveness via VTC
What the foundation proposed to do with the i3 grant, a project which is now nearly a year underway, is the Northeast Tennessee College and Career Ready Consortium. The program aims to transform a 15-district geography where there are both cultural and infrastructural challenges to educational access by better preparing students and families for college and careers. Firstly, to improve the rigor of the curriculum, and thereby increase the competitiveness of graduates, the program is funding so-called “distance-learning” coursework that is delivered over technology to the partnership of 29 high schools. Secondly, six college and career counselors have been hired and deployed throughout the high schools. The counselors work alongside traditional counselors, helping students and parents understand the lifelong benefits of post-secondary training and providing assistance with the federal financial aid process.
A 10- to 15-year plan now 4
“The foundation was already working to increase rigor and access to higher education in Northeast Tennessee long before the i3 grant,” explains Irwin. “But what the i3 grant has enabled us to do is to accelerate a 10- to 15-year plan to just four.”
“We have great personnel resources in this area of the state—I can think of so many outstanding teachers and administrators—but leveraging those assets in a financially feasible way is difficult,” says Irwin. The challenge is that the communities and schools in Northeastern Tennessee are largely small, remote, rural and economically depressed, all factors that conspire to keep curriculum less rigorous and teacher staffing difficult.
Closing the access and opportunity gap
“Our problem,” sums up Irwin, “is access and opportunity.” To illustrate, she points to one area high school with a total enrollment of 52 students that sits on top of a mountain.
Even if a student attending that high school has college ambitions, gaps in the high school curriculum here can harm the student’s application competitiveness and college preparedness. To bolster the rigor of the coursework in the consortium’s high school, Niswonger is funding the use of video-teleconferencing equipment and the Internet to offer critical “gap” courses—what the schools can’t get locally and in-person, they’ll get from the other partner high schools and institutions of higher learning by way of technology.
All the partner schools are on the ENA network, with ENA ensuring that each has adequate broadband Internet connectivity ingress and egress, and the partnership is using a mixture of H.323 equipment and the ENA Video Connect cloud-based solution to broadcast their distance-learning courses.
Increasing rigor with foreign languages, math, science and more
In the spring of 2011, students began taking high-level math science classes (Physics, Chemistry, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, Probability & Statistics), World History, foreign-language classes (French I and II, Mandarin Chinese I and II, German and Latin) and dual-credit courses (English IV and U.S. History). The schools are also offering Algebra 2 tutoring online as well as twelve new online Advanced Placement class (passing grades on “AP” tests results in college credit for these courses). Also this past spring, six counselors hired by Niswonger made over 11,000 contacts with students to discuss and prepare them for college and careers.
“The innovative part of our plan,” sums up Irwin, “is pooling together all these resources and linking them through technology.” And they’re just getting started, says Irwin.
29 eager, determined partner schools
Over the summer, three curriculum specialists created a course catalog for the 29 high schools and “are now attacking the next need areas, determining if the gaps are best filled by distance learning, online classes or dual-credit courses with local colleges.” Also over the summer, forty teachers from the partner high schools completed Advance Placement (AP) training—thirty more than Niswonger’s goal—in order to give students more opportunities to earn college credit before high school graduation. Based on student demand during the spring semester, Niswonger and the partner schools decided more counselors were necessary, so the schools’ own counselors are receiving supplementary training and newly hired counselors are now being trained. Last year counselors began taking students and their parents—“including parents is part of how we will break a cycle of non-higher education in this area”—on college campus visits, transportation for which the foundation covers. This year the foundation plans to take far more.
To say that Irwin is excited about the progress thus far is an understatement. “How could a person not be excited?” she says. “When you see how adamant these schools are about making this happen? When you hear students say that they never thought they would be able to take these kinds of courses? When you see a goal for volunteer teacher training quadrupled?”
A guiding mantra: “Never again …”
“We have a guiding mantra for our consortium program,” explains Irwin. “Never again in Northeast Tennessee will we put a student in a classroom because that is all there is. We put a student in classroom because that’s what they want and need.”
She continues. “We’re taking the approach that every adult in our schools that comes in contact with our students is a college or career counselor. We’re building our human capital, whether they’re teachers, counselors, administrators or staff. We’re trying to show our students that they can succeed. It’s all about changing a mindset and giving our students the precious assets of access and opportunity.”
For more information about the Niswonger Foundation, visit www.niswongerfoundation.org.
For more information about ENA Video Connect, please contact ENA Technical Product Manager Mike Pfannenstiel at email@example.com.