Transforming High School

Transforming High School

Gateway Scholars Pursue Success after Graduation 

Chattanooga is known for dreaming big. Home to the fastest improving public schools in Tennessee, community leaders have set their sights on earning the title of best school district in the state – and being the Smartest Community in the South. To make that happen, it’s vital that students make a successful transition from high school to college and career training. 

In 2019, a group of educational organizations and institutions – Public Education Foundation (PEF), Hamilton County Schools (HCS), Chattanooga State Technical Community College, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, Benwood Foundation, Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, and Chattanooga 2.0  –  received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in support of a collaborative initiative to increase high school graduation, college enrollment, and persistence for students from six Hamilton County high schools. Students from Brainerd, East Ridge, Hixson, Howard, Red Bank, and Tyner high schools are aspiring high school and college graduates, yet they face significant barriers to completing a credential program or post-secondary degree compared to their middle and upper middle class counterparts at other schools.

“These schools have our highest populations of Black, Latinx, and low-income students,” explains Stacy Lightfoot, Vice President of College and Career Success at PEF. “Partners collaborated on a set of strategies that works to stop the leaks from high school to college by transforming the high school experience and implementing supports to increase success in the first two years of college.”

From June 2019 through June 2021 Gates funding will provide for numerous resources to improve our city’s talent pipeline. Based on data collected from the students and the schools, collaborators have identified several areas of focus. These include: 

  • increasing college-going expectations
  • developing more comprehensive college advising in high school
  • providing a summer bridge program to prevent summer “melt”
  • connecting high school graduates with college advancement mentors
  • continued high-quality advising, peer mentoring, and cohort learning opportunities after high school

“We were able to get started quickly because our partners have all been working together for many years,” Lightfoot says. “As soon as the grant was awarded in June, we worked with Hamilton County Schools and our higher education partners to track down 2019 graduates from our six focus schools and connect them with their own college advancement mentors (CAM). These CAMs check in with students, keep track of their grades, and offer assistance and mentorship regularly.” 

If a student is struggling in class, their CAM reaches out to figure out why. So far, Lightfoot says they’ve seen students on the verge of “stopping out” of college due to family emergency needs and lack of resources to equip them for academic success (i.e. money for books or calculators). Some students need help accessing the resources their institution already provides like tutoring and counseling services. In each situation, the CAM has helped the student solve the problem and stay focused on their studies.

“This grant provided the opportunity for students from our focus schools to go on more field trips and college tours last year,” says Lightfoot. “It also gives graduates the chance to be in small learning communities and cohort classes at Chattanooga State and UTC.”

Even as school buildings closed for COVID-19 quarantine, grant dollars helped cover unmet costs of advanced courses and dual enrollment and also provided professional development opportunities for educators. 

“We want to bake student success into the system,” Lightfoot says. “We know that what you build for the majority will not always work for the minority – but if you build a system that works for minorities, it will benefit all students. Consider: if you build a sidewalk and ramp for people who have difficulty climbing stairs, able bodied people can also push a stroller or ride a bike on the same sidewalk – it’s an equitable solution that works for the minority and the majority.”

Gates Foundation chose Chattanooga because partners have been working together through Chattanooga 2.0 to focus on our community’s cradle to career continuum. This work hones in on an important piece in the continuum to provide more students with opportunities for college and career experiences through robust partnerships.

“When the Gates Foundation first came to Chattanooga to study the work happening here, their staff were amazed at the 2.0 urgent strategies and our collaborative efforts to change outcomes,” says Lightfoot. “They’re learning about successful collective impact work from us and hope it will help the Gates Foundation understand better how to support communities working together to close equity gaps for Black, LatinX and students from low-income backgrounds.” 

Chattanooga 2.0 is a cradle-to-career partnership with a goal to transform education and workforce development outcomes. Explore its resources on educational equity in Hamilton County here. 

The Gates Foundation is committed to improving K-12 education and postsecondary success in Chattanooga and around the world. Learn more about their efforts here: K-12 | Postsecondary