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Rep: Ayers partnership helped seniors acquire $1.4M in funds for post-secondary education

By Brad Hicks

After just its first year, a partnership aimed at helping Unicoi County High School students prepare for their post-secondary education is already proving to be a success.

“It’s really hard to believe the benefit that’s derived for our boys and girls already just in one year,” said Unicoi County Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle.

During its Thursday, June 8, meeting, the Unicoi County Board of Education received an end-of-the-year update on the school system’s partnership with the Ayers Foundation. Through this partnership, which was forged at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, the Ayers Foundation through its Scholars Program provided funding to bring a new counselor to UCHS to provide students with application assistance, information and help in securing funding for the educational journeys awaiting them.

Thursday’s update was presented by Jodi Lane Bradford, the college access counselor provided through the Ayers Foundation. Perhaps the most impressive number provided by Bradford is that 98 percent of eligible seniors from the 2016-17 UCHS senior class are committed to pursuing a post-secondary education, which includes the military.

“It’s just a neat progression for me to see how far we’ve come as a program and how far the students have come and just that it’s going to continue to get better,” Bradford said as she reflected upon the first year of the partnership. 

Bradford also said 98 percent of the recently-graduated UCHS seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. She said 100 percent of UCHS seniors completed Tennessee Promise Applications, and 100 percent of 2016-17 seniors completed at least one college application during the 2016-17 school year.

The 2016-17 UCHS senior class received around $1.4 million in scholarships for the upcoming year, and members of this past year’s senior class will represent UCHS this fall at 22 post-secondary institutions, including East Tennessee State University, Milligan College, University of Tennessee – Knoxville, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, New York University and Yale.

Bradford said, perhaps for the first time in UCHS history, more graduating seniors are set to begin their higher learning career at a four-year university rather than a community college.

“I think this is just because of us helping them realize all the resources that are available, because they’ve always been talented and academically able to do so, hopefully, they’ll succeed and do really well there,” Bradford said. “We’re excited for that.”

Six campus tours were also made available to UCHS seniors during the 2016-17 school year. Other events resulting from the Ayers Foundation partnership, such as college signing days, a junior parent night and a Unicoi County Middle School college and career fair, were held throughout the year.

In February, the Ayers Foundation brought in Kayla Tapia to UCHS to serve as a financial aid assistant, offering another resource for seniors looking to continue their education.

In August 2016, Jim and Janet Ayers announced that the Ayers Foundation would be providing funds to bring a new counselor to UCHS.

“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,” Janet Ayers, president of the Ayers Foundation, said in August. “Our counselors are very skilled at finding all possible funding sources that help our students attend the school of their choice.”

When the partnership was announced, Unicoi County joined three other counties – Decatur, Perry and Henderson – in receiving support from the Ayers Foundation. According to information provided at the time of the announcement, the program has helped secure more than $30 million in funding for students in West Tennessee, and over the nearly two decades of the program has supported Decatur, Perry and Henderson counties, more than 4,000 graduates in those counties have pursued a post-secondary education.

“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 in August. “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.”

Bradford added that there are plans in place to grow the program made possible by the Ayers Foundation. She said these plans include the hiring of another counselor at some point, an increased engagement with UCHS underclassmen, an increased focus on workforce readiness, the offering of life skills classes, and working to increase reading and English proficiency in the Hispanic student population. 

School board member Garland Evely said he attended one of the events held this past year at UCHS and observed an excitement among students “that I hadn’t seen before.”

Unicoi County Director of Schools John English commended the efforts of those brought in by the Ayers Foundation thus far, adding he is looking forward to what the future holds for the partnership.

“I said in August when we had the announcement that this was going to be a game changer and, certainly now, you can see just how big of a game changer it was for our students and our system to have you ladies to continue the work that was already there but to help build that culture of next step, post-secondary, what that looks like, how important that is,” English said to Bradford. “I know how invested both of you have been from day one, I’ve seen it, and our students are reaping the benefits from that.”