By Keeli Parkey
A program that has reportedly helped secure $39 million in grants and other funds for students in West Tennessee has arrived in Unicoi County.
On Friday, Aug. 12, Jim Ayers and his wife, Janet Ayers, a native of Northeast Tennessee and former county businesswoman, announced that The Ayers Foundation will provide funds to bring a new counselor to Unicoi County High School through its Scholars Program. The purpose of this counselor will be to help students apply – and find funding for – their post-secondary education.
“The foundation will provide funding for a counselor in Unicoi County to help students and parents find outside financial aid so that they can continue their education,” Mrs. Ayers, who is president of the Foundation, said. “Our counselors are very skilled at finding all possible funding sources that help our students attend the school of their choice.”
Unicoi County joins three other counties – Decatur, Perry and Henderson – in receiving this support from the Foundation. In its 17 years supporting Decatur, Perry and Henderson counties, approximately 4,200 graduates from those three counties have continued their education after high school.
“The work Jim and Janet Ayers have done in these communities has transformed the lives of hundreds of young people and their families,” Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen said. “Now, more students are graduating from high school equipped for college and careers, which will change their futures and strengthen their communities – both now and for years to come.”
Speaking before an assembly of students, high school faculty and community leaders at UCHS on Friday, Director of Schools John English shared the Foundation’s history of success with students.
“Since working with the The Ayers Foundation, the graduation rates for these counties have shot through the roof, as have the number of graduates who went on to continue their education after high school,” English said. “Just to give you an example of the impact The Ayers Foundation has had on partnering schools … Scotts Hills High School had 96 percent of all seniors committed to post-secondary education. That is a staggering, staggering figure.
“The Ayers Foundation and its impact on these communities has been transformative and life-changing for numerous students and families.”
Following Friday’s announcement, English expressed his appreciation for the new partnership.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for our school system and community,” he said. “We are very grateful to the foundation for this partnership. It is an absolute game changer for our students.”
Postsecondary education is critical in today’s economy, according to state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd.
“Employers today are looking for workers who are continual learners and critical thinkers,” Boyd said. “With support from The Ayers Foundation, high school graduates in Unicoi County will be able to pursue additional education and training in colleges or technical schools.”
Mrs. Ayers told the assembly the school’s new counselor, Jodi Lane Bradford, started working at UCHS on Aug. 1. She also said that while Bradford is an employee of The Ayers Foundation, she will have an office at UCHS.
“Her sole person is to work with every single student in this high school and your parents to help you to find the best fit, the financial resources … anything and everything she can to help every single student do something post-secondary when they graduate from Unicoi County High School,” Mrs. Ayers said. “Every single student. We don’t cherry pick. We don’t make you jump through a lot of hoops. You have to do your part – you have to graduate. You have to work on your grades. We are not looking for just the top 10 percent; we’re not looking for just the student-athlete; we’re not looking for the band member; we are looking for every single student to get you to the highest level that we can.”
Bradford will also help students with TN Promise, which according to the state, offers two years attendance at a technical school or community college in Tennessee tuition free.
Jim Ayers, who founded The Ayers Foundation in 1999, on Friday encouraged students to continue their education and work with the counselor.
“This can be transformative for this school, for every one of you students and for the community if you students recognize what an opportunity this is and take it seriously,” Mr. Ayers said. “… I want each of you to make a commitment to yourself: ‘I am not going to let this opportunity go away without taking advantage of it.’ You can do it. Everybody in here can do it. … I know you are going to do it. … We are going to love to see the progress that you make.”
Mrs. Ayers said she and Mr. Ayers “believe in” communities like Unicoi County.
“Jim started The Ayers Foundation as a way of giving back to a community that had done so much for him,” she said. “… We both come from small-town communities and we believe in them. There is a small-town community in Unicoi County that means as much to me as Henderson, Decatur and Perry counties mean to Jim.
“About nine years ago we decided we wanted to get a lot more involved in Unicoi County because we believe in small communities,” she continued. “… One of the best ways to raise a community up, besides your family and your faith, is your education. We believe very strongly in that.”
Mrs. Ayers said she expects 160 students from the UCHS 2017 graduating class to go on to a form of post-secondary education.
“I am really expecting Unicoi County to knock it off the charts,” she said. “We are so excited about being here and being part of this high school. … I can’t think of a better place for The Ayers Foundation to be. I am so grateful that we get to join hands with this amazing community and together bring a full-time employee here.”
For more information about The Ayers Foundation, visit www.theayersfoundation.org.