Volunteers needed

Tennessee Promise needs 9,000 more mentors to help record number of applicants get to college

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Gov. Bill Haslam greets Nashville-area community college students to launch Tennessee Promise in 2014.

A record number of Tennessee high school seniors have applied to the state’s tuition-free community college program, requiring a record number of volunteers to help those students achieve their goals.

About 61,000 seniors applied by this week’s deadline for Tennessee Promise, the state’s pioneering program to get more students to attend in-state community or technical colleges. That’s up from almost 60,000 last year and about 58,000 in 2014, when the program launched.

Nearly 8,650 of this year’s applicants were from Shelby County, an increase of about 4 percent from last year.

But students aren’t enough to make the program work. The state needs 9,000 more volunteers to mentor applicants as they transition from high school to college.

“With this record number of applicants and a number of other indicators, it’s clear that Tennessee Promise is changing the conversation around going to college in Tennessee,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in a press release. “But we don’t just want students to apply to college; we want them to succeed in college and graduate.”

Haslam appealed to the Volunteer State for volunteers to step forth as mentors.

“The time commitment is small, but the impact can be life changing for students across our state and in your community,” he said.

Research shows that mentor relationships help students not only enroll in college, but finish.

Only two of Tennessee’s 95 counties — Hawkins and Grundy — have enough mentors to serve all of their applicants. Shelby County needs upward of 900 volunteers, said Krissy DeAlejandro, director of TNAchieves, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the scholarship program.

When Tennessee Promise launched in 2014, Tennessee became the nation’s first state to offer two years of community or technical college free of tuition and fees. Even as the state struggles with college preparedness, it’s seen a boost in community college enrollment. The program aims to make college accessible to all Tennessee students, regardless of income.

Mentors must be at least 21 years old and attend a one-hour training and two one-hour meetings with their students over the course of a year. On average, mentors spend about an hour a month working with three to seven students as they transition from high school to college, reminding them of important deadlines, encouraging them, and serving as a trusted resource. The deadline to apply as a mentor is Nov. 20.

Trouble with transcripts

Mayor: Detroit high school grads lost jobs because city schools couldn’t produce their transcripts

In his State of the City address, Mayor Mike Duggan said Detroit high school grads lost jobs because school bureaucracy made it hard to get high school transcripts.

By the time students graduate from the Detroit Public Schools, they have likely endured many years of frustrations, indignities and disappointments, but Mayor Mike Duggan revealed in his State of the City address Tuesday night that, for many Detroiters, the challenges didn’t end with graduation.

Until recently, graduates lost job opportunities when they struggled to get copies of their transcripts from the district.

Duggan, during  his roughly hourlong speech, said officials with the city’s Detroit At Work job training program discovered the transcript problem when they were talking with the heads of major hospitals in the city.

The hospital leaders said they were having difficulty filling entry-level positions despite Detroit’s high unemployment rate because Detroiters who applied couldn’t produce their high school transcripts.

City officials were skeptical, Duggan recalled. “So they went over to the Detroit Public Schools and do you know what they found? One million paper transcripts in a warehouse, in a school system run by an emergency manager who was dealing with everything he or she could at the schools.”

It had been taking two to three months for hospitals to get applicants’ transcripts, Duggan said, and “by the time they got the transcript, somebody else had the job.”

The Detroit At Work program contacted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather who “got really mad,” Duggan said, and ordered the district to speed up the process.

Soon, one local business leader donated scanners so transcripts could be digitized and another business leader marshaled his employees to volunteer to physically scan the documents. The issue is being resolved, Duggan said, but he seemed alarmed that the problem existed in the first place.

“How many barriers do we have to erect in front of the folks in this town?” he asked.

The mayor’s speech largely focused on economic and community issues. Since he has very little authority or influence over schools, it’s no surprise that he didn’t spend much time on education.

But he did tout the Detroit Promise scholarship program, which guarantees two years of community college tuition to all Detroit grads as well as four-year tuition to qualifying grads who have good grades and test scores.

“If you apply yourself, college is going to be available to any resident of the city of Detroit who graduates from a Detroit high school,” Duggan said. “It’s one of the privileges of growing up in the city of Detroit.”

He also reiterated his recent vow to fight forced school closings by the state. State officials have threatened to close 25 schools in the city after years of poor test scores but Duggan said closures won’t improve education.

“Here’s what I know for sure,” he said. “We have 110,000 school children in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a single quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place.”

Duggan said he and the newly elected school board “know we need to improve these schools but before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative and I’ve been encouraged by the conversations between the school board leadership and the governor’s office this week. I’m optimistic we’re gonna work things out but I want everybody in this community to know that I will be standing with [School Board] President Iris Taylor and the Detroit school board on this entire school closure issue.”

Upon further review

McQueen defends graduation statistic, acknowledges missteps in communication

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen is commissioner of education in Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that more Tennessee high school graduates are fulfilling the state’s requirements than originally thought by her department.

In a memo to school superintendents, she said only 22 percent of recent graduates received their diplomas without completing the requirements. Last month, a state report put that number at 33 percent.

But she defended the original statistic, saying it reflected data available at the time.

“We know many of you have received questions from your local community about your graduates, and we understand the graduation requirement statistic has led to misunderstandings and wrong conclusions,” she wrote. “We recognize the report did not do enough to convey the extent to which districts and schools have been and are working to meet state policy on graduation requirements.”

The memo was signed by both McQueen and Wayne Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization for School Superintendents. Local district superintendents had asked the State Department of Education to review the startling statistic, initially released in a department report on the state’s high schools.

McQueen emphasized that no wrongdoing led to so many students missing credits. Instead, they came about from districts using state-sanctioned waivers or allowing students to substitute courses for some requirements, she said.

The commissioner also released guidance related to course data entry in an effort to minimize errors in the future.

“I know your concern on this statistic is rooted in your deep desire to ensure that every student is equipped to be successful after they leave our K-12 system, and we want to do everything we can to both support you in that mission and to provide you with data that will help you further understand how students are doing,” she wrote.

Read the full memo here: