Megan Boehnke, Knoxville News Sentinel
Like any good preacher, Buzz Thomas begins with his hands in his pockets and a casual tone, leaving plenty of room for his message to crescendo.
He stands in front of a two-story wall of windows, and at 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in October, the rising sun is casting a soft glow on the buildings and trees behind him.
“You know, it doesn’t really matter if you have granite counter tops,” Thomas, whose real first name is Oliver, tells the crowd of about a hundred. “It really doesn’t matter if you drive a Lexus. It really doesn’t.”
Working women and businessmen, retired couples and young professionals all nod.
Thomas — who is an ordained Baptist minister, a lawyer, a TnAchieves board member and heads the Greater Schools Partnership — has given this speech before.
Every year, he delivers the emotional pep talk at an early morning breakfast on the Pellissippi State Community College campus. It’s meant to rouse local mentors who have volunteered to shepherd high school students through the college process.
In just 10 minutes, he touches on family, faith, the South, incarceration rates and tough love.
But he always steers it back to Tennessee Promise — a program previously known as TnAchieves, and KnoxAchieves before that.
He calls it the “best college access program in the country” and insists its successes should be “shouted from the mountain tops.”
The nods and “mhmms” in the room come more frequently as he lands his closing line.
“Thank you for giving the right answer to the oldest question in the world — Am I my brother’s keeper? Am I my brother’s keeper?,” he asks, the second time for emphasis.
“You bet you are.”
There’s a quiver in his voice and in the front, a woman shakes her head and offers an “Amen.”
Suddenly, it’s easy to see how a modest program meant to help local high schoolers has rocketed across the state in just six years.
It started with one staffer and an office in the Knoxville City-County Building. The program has since spread to surrounding counties, Memphis and then Nashville.
Now, thanks to new legislation passed in May, the community college scholarship and mentor program will be available to every child in Tennessee.
in The Beginning
In 2008, roughly 3,500 students were graduating high school in Knox County.
Somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of them stopped after receiving their diploma — no college, no technical school.
The graduates who weren’t going to college had the backgrounds you’d expect. They were low-income, “academically fragile” students whose family members had never been to college before.
That summer, on a white board in her office on the sixth floor, deputy chief of staff Krissy DeAlejandro began sketching ideas with her boss, then-county Mayor Mike Ragsale.
These students needed money, but they also needed a support structure. The key, they decided, would be to pair funding with guidance and accountability.
The first place Ragsdale turned was to Randy Boyd, founder of Radio Systems, better known for its flagship brand, PetSafe.
Boyd had his own ambition, to make Knoxville the most pet-friendly city in America. It was a dream that included some politicking.
So, Boyd invited Ragsdale to his house for breakfast, prepared to pitch him on the importance of dog parks and allowing pets on patios at restaurants downtown.
Boyd had coffee. Ragsdale, who doesn’t like coffee, had a diet cola. They ate bagels in the sunshine.
Ragsdale, “like any good politician,” Boyd said, agreed to all the pet-related proposals, but asked for quid pro quo.
“When he shared his vision, it was so compelling that I just felt like I had to help,” Boyd recalled. “We quickly outlined a program.”
With a proposal in place, Boyd started calling friends in high places. Tim Williams and Rich Ray,the co-founders of 21st Mortgage Corporation, both said yes. Ragsdale pulled in then-Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, and the five of them formed the KnoxAchieves board.
In 60 days, the group collected seven pledges totaling $2.3 million, Boyd said. Within 90 days, they recruited 176 mentors.
Without knowing how much the program would cost, they set a cap of 500 students; 493 applied.Of those, about 60 percent enrolled in a community college that fall.
It cost $218,763, less than $800 per student.
‘Dig your heels in’
In that first year, DeAlejandro knew every student’s name, and she knew their parents.
A product of Warren County, 70 miles east of Nashville, DeAlejandro’s own mother dropped out in the 10th grade. Her father stopped at a high school diploma.
She took out huge student loans and was overwhelmed by the workload at Sewanee: The University of the South, where she struggled through calculus and chemistry.
“I just remember my dad saying, ‘Dig in. Just dig your heels in,'” she recalled. “I say that to kids all the time now.”
Her story is relatable to the high-schoolers she works with, and likely part of her passion to see them succeed.
There were fewer policies in that first year, and no organized meetings between the mentors and students. They were trusted to work it out on their own.
The overhead costs were covered by the county —mostly just DeAlejandro’s salary and office space. It stayed that way for the first two years.
In 2010, that cost shifted to Boyd’s company. The staff slowly expanded and moved into the front office in a nondescript Radio Systems warehouse.
And as the organization grew, the success of its students was undeniable.
Of the first 286 students who went to community college through KnoxAchieves, 70 percent returned for their sophomore year. The state average is 56 percent.
To date, 33 percent of the first class has earned an associate’s degree — almost triple the three-year state graduation rate.
By the class of 2011, the applications doubled and so did the enrollment. The board decided to apply for a grant to expand the program to other counties. The goal was 50 counties, but the final tally was 23.
One of those, however, was Shelby County.
With Memphis in the fold, it meant the program was available to 43 percent of the state’s public high schools.
A SOLUTION FOR THE STATE
DeAlejandro pitched her home county three times. She assured them every dollar they raised would go directly to student scholarships.
But at the end of the day, raising $75,000 every year was impossible for Warren County, she said. It was impossible for a lot of counties.
As KnoxAchieves became TnAchieves and spread across the state, it got harder to leave behind communities without enough local fundraising support.
By 2012, about 6,500 students were signing up for the program. Mayor Haslam had become Gov. Haslam, and he was about to announce a new state goal to bring college attainment up to 55 percent by the year 2025.
To help focus this goal, Haslam tapped Boyd to join his staff as a special advisor for higher education in a one-year, zero-salary appointment.
“Probably when Gov. Haslam asked Randy to serve in the role, he knew this was coming, right?” DeAlejandro said. “The guy who champions TnAchieves and funds it at just a more than generous level? I am sure Gov. Haslam knew that something like this was coming from Randy.
“It was just sort of figuring out the pieces.”
Boyd admitted after spending five years on the Knoxville-based program, it emerged as a possible solution for the state.
So, he brought together the “smartest people” in higher education policy from across the state.
Together in a room, he challenged them: “Let’s imagine we have no restrictions, no budget or legislative restrictions whatsoever, what would be the biggest idea you can possibly think of?”
It was Rich Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, who suggested using excess lottery reserves to create an endowment, Boyd said.
“When he put that up on the board, I thought, ‘That’s brilliant. Let’s go do that,'” Boyd recalled.
By creating that endowment and tweaking the merit-based HOPE lottery scholarship to give community college students more state money, it would be enough to fund the program across Tennessee.
The governor was on board.
a model that works
Haslam waited until the very end of his state-of-the-state address in February to make the announcement.
“The Tennessee Promise is an ongoing commitment to every student – from every kindergartner to every high school senior,” Haslam told the General Assembly. “We will promise that he or she can attend two years of community college or a college of applied technology absolutely free.”
At the word “free,” the entire chamber stood up, applauding loudly.
It seemed gaining approval would be easy.
But while few people may have objections to free college, everyone has suggestions on how to do it.
To start, there was pushback from the four-year schools who balked at the changes to the state’s merit-based, lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship.
To help fund the Promise, the governor’s office wanted to change the award for four-year students from $4,000 each year to $3,000 in the first two years and $5,000 in the last two years. But private colleges worried this would increase the burden for their freshmen and sophomore students.
In the end, they compromised on a split of $3,500 and $4,500 for students at four-year schools.
Meanwhile, lawmakers suggested students should meet academic standards, such as a minimum ACT score, and families should face an income cap.
“What I really love about this program is its universal acceptance,” DeAlejandro said. “Everybody can be part of it. It’s by design. If you exclude (middle class students), this becomes a program for poor kids, which is never what I wanted it to be and never what I think was the intention.”
To combat the skepticism, the governor’s staff arrived at the Senate and House Education Committee meetings armed with statistics from the six previous years of TnAchieves.
They had a model that worked and the data to prove it.
Even while offering scholarships to every high school senior who applied, the program managed to recruit students who are most in need. Of all the high school graduates who have participated in the program, 65 percent are first-generation college students and 69 percent have a household income of less than $50,000.
If the data wasn’t enough, in mid-March governor’s staff brought in students whose lives had been changed by the program to testify at the committee hearings.
Virginia Hughes, of Blount County, told lawmakers she had never considered college before hearing about TnAchieves. She’s now a senior at the University of Tennessee majoring in anthropology and plans to continue with her master’s next year.
First-generation student Cody Mitchell told senators he graduated from Carter High School with a 2.9 GPA and ACT score of 19 — both just under the minimum standards for a HOPE scholarship. With no idea how to apply for financial aid, he received help through KnoxAchieves, graduated from Pellissippi State with an associates degree and now works for West Knox Utility District.
For the next month, lawmakers added amendments and then withdrew them.
They continued to debate as the bill passed the education and then finance committees in each chamber.
On April 14, with the compromise in place on the HOPE scholarship, the Senate passed approved Tennessee Promise on a 30-1 vote. The House passed the same proposal the next day with only 8 dissents.
Four weeks later, the governor signed the bill into law.