Standing in front of their class at the University of Memphis, high school students fidget nervously before pitching a business idea to their classmates: producing soap carved in the shape of ducks.

“Did you guys just come up with that?” asked business professor Jennifer Sadler, prompting a sheepish acknowledgement from the teenagers that they did.

“When I give my students work to do, it means you need to get it done outside of class,” admonished Sadler, who then quickly assured the students that some of the most successful business ideas are inspired in five minutes or less.

Such interaction is common at the GRAD Academy’s Summer Institutes, launched this summer in an effort to prepare and encourage students at the Memphis high school to graduate and continue their studies at college.

GRAD Academy Memphis is a charter school within the Achievement School District, the state’s school turnaround district for Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of schools. Eighty percent of the school’s students are economically disadvantaged, and only about a third scored proficient on the state algebra achievement test in 2013-14.

This week, 50 of the school’s 10th- and 11th-graders have been immersed in a college environment at the University of Memphis. Last week, a different group of GRAD Academy students attended classes at Rhodes College, also in Memphis. Each week costs roughly $30,000 to operate, and the funding comes from a private donor. The program is free to students, who need at least a 2.0 GPA to be eligible to attend. For completing a summer institute, each student receives a $150 stipend.

Participants this week arrived on campus and ate breakfast each day at the Tiger Den dining hall before attending classes taught by university faculty. Just like with college students, they are expected to attend class and complete assignments. On Friday, the students will present a project demonstrating what they learned and will participate in graduation ceremonies.

“It’s pretty miraculous that in a week’s time, they learn some introductory material, create a presentation, and share it with their friends and family on Friday,” said Stephanie Hill, dean of students at GRAD Academy Memphis.

At the University of Memphis, students chose from four “tracks,” or majors: communications, entrepreneurship, engineering and art/film. Each track has a university student who serves as “team leader” to guide the high school students on campus and assist teachers in the classroom, where the student-teacher ratio is 17:1.

University of Memphis senior and team leader Gregesha Williams said the Summer Institute help students realize that college is possible.

“They were just so excited about having the possibility to be an adult and attend school,” Williams said. “It gives them hope and encouragement and it lets them know that they already have what they need within them to be successful.”

Sixteen-year-old Dekena Ervin, who was part of the team who pitched the soap company, said participating in the program helps her to envision herself on a college campus someday, despite the early morning classes and heavy workload.

University of Memphis instructor Jennifer Sadler presents a lesson during an entrepreneurship class at the GRAD Academy Summer Institute on the campus of the University of Memphis.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
University of Memphis instructor Jennifer Sadler presents a lesson during an entrepreneurship class at the GRAD Academy Summer Institute.

“I wanted to do this because I know my destiny in life. I want to be somebody,” said Dekena, who chose the entrepreneurship track. “I did it just to get the college experience and see how college would work out for me.”

Institute instructors treat Dekena and her classmates like college students. When Sadler critiqued her students’ business ideas, she offered suggestions on how to improve them next time.

Dekena said she appreciates the candid evaluation.

“When I express my ideas within the classroom, the professors actually give me honest feedback about what I say,” Dekena said. “Whether it’s good or bad, they give me honest feedback.”