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PRIDE in the Heart of Knoxville

Project GRAD/UTK disadvantaged high school students

The Project GRAD/UTK Summer Institute motivates economically and academically disadvantaged high school students.

By Elise LeQuire

Miracle Harper (UTK ’09) is the first in her family to graduate from a four-year college, and though her parents let her know early on that she was college bound—”It was college or the military,” she says—Harper also had a network of support from her high school and the community, and the chance to get a first-hand glimpse of college life through an intensive residential summer program held on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus.

Each summer since 2001, UTK has hosted a Summer Institute for high school students from two inner-city Knoxville schools: Austin East Magnet and Fulton high schools. The aim is to hone the students’ academic skills in preparation for demanding college level courses and expose them to career paths they can pursue through post-secondary education. “We were just 15 years old and very excited to attend classes ‘on the Hill’ and learn to be responsible for our roommates and our homework,” says Harper, an Austin East graduate who attended the Summer Institute in 2003.

We Have a Dream

The institute is part of a larger effort, Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams), a K-12 program based on the recognition that early intervention, at the kindergarten level through high school, can keep economically and academically disadvantaged kids motivated and focused on their academic future. This model, the feeder system, was pioneered in the 1980s by James Ketelsen, who launched the first such program in Houston. Today, 14 Project GRAD programs nationwide serve at-risk students, including Project GRAD Knoxville.

Fritz G. Polite

Fritz G. Polite.

“The institute helps students clarify their academic and career goals,” says Dr. Fritz G. Polite, a clinical professor in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences and co-director along with Dr. Steven Waller of the Project GRAD/UTK Summer Institute. The 2009 program brought two groups of rising 10th and 11th graders to campus for 10 days. The theme of the 2009 summer program was Pursuing Reachable Incredible Dreams through Education (PRIDE). “Education is about realizing dreams,” says Polite, who is with the students from breakfast at 7:00 a.m. till bed check at 10:00 p.m.

Morning classes sharpen students’ skills in the core academic curriculum, including English, math, computer applications, and preparation for the standardized college admission test, the ACT. In the afternoon, students are grouped by career interest in fields such as arts and entertainment, architecture and engineering, communications, law, and recreation and sport science.

Students also benefit from interactions with former Project GRAD participants, such as Harper, who was a residential team leader in 2007. Team leaders are recruited from UTK, Carson Newman College, Howard University, and Memphis University. “This diversity demonstrates the gamut of possible colleges students may attend,” says Polite: “a large state university, a small liberal arts college, a prestigious traditionally black university, and an inner-city university.” To round out the exposure, the summer before the UTK Summer Institute, students attend a four-week program at Pellissippi State Technical Community College.

2009 is the eighth year of the 12-year program, which is supported by Knox County Schools and a grant from corporate sponsors. “In 2008, the Project GRAD model was recognized under the Higher Education Act as a federally authorized program, a designation that ensures matching federal funding,” says Polite.

Thinking Beyond High School

For UT sophomore Toyia Williams, going to college was pretty much a given. Williams, a 2008 graduate of Austin East attended the Summer Institute in 2005. She says the program gave her a glimpse of the academic and social rigor she could expect at the college level. Not all the students who attend, however, are highly motivated. “I know that as a peer group, they are not necessarily convinced they are going to college,” says Williams, a sports management major. “The Summer Institute helps them make decisions about what to do after high school. Project GRAD Knoxville unites students, teachers, and parents to give them more opportunities for furthering the students’ education.”

Team leaders have diverse backgrounds

The program recruits team leaders from a diverse group of colleges and universities including UT Knoxville.

Upon successful completion of two Summer Institutes, all students with a 2.5 GPA are awarded a $4,000 scholarship to help them attend any institution of higher learning they choose, whether it be a university, community college, or technical school. Harper says that receiving the scholarship motivated her to seek further financial aid. “I got a full ride from UT and was able to graduate on time with no debt,” she says.

As of 2008, 473 Project GRAD scholarships have been awarded to graduates of the two inner-city schools. “Project GRAD and the community of Knoxville are working together to provide unique resources to students who would not receive them otherwise, and that engagement may invite students to go on to higher education, says Polite. “We are extremely happy with our cooperation and look forward to our continued work.”