Randy is committed to helping more Tennesseans prepare for the jobs of the future.
As part of that effort to help more Tennesseans gain the workforce skills they need, the Drive to 55 includes nation-leading scholarship programs like the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect. Together, these programs have already helped nearly 300,000 high school seniors and adults go to community or technical college, tuition-free.
KNOXACHIEVES: THE ORIGINAL IDEA
knoxAchieves was born at Randy’s kitchen table in the spring of 2008.
Randy had invited his neighbor, then-Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, to breakfast to pitch an idea to make Knoxville the ‘most pet friendly city in America.’ But Mayor Ragsdale had a pitch of his own.
Ragsdale needed Randy’s help to send more Knox County high school graduates to college. At the time, nearly one-third of Knox County’s graduates were not getting any training after high school, because of financial or societal barriers, keeping too many from earning a living wage after high school. These stories and statistics hit home for Randy, as he was the first person in his family to go to college.
At the kitchen table, the two quickly outlined a program that included free tuition for nearly 500 Knoxville high school seniors, who in return were asked to complete a few community service hours and to meet with a volunteer mentor. In 60 days, Randy had helped raise $2.3 million to fund the program, and within 90 days, they recruited 176 volunteer mentors to support the students.
Later, knoxAchieves expanded to tnAchieves in 2011 to triple in size. tnAchieves raised $15.5 million in private donations to support more than 10,000 students in its first six years. When tnAchieves board member, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, was elected Governor of Tennessee, he and Randy decided this program needed to be expanded statewide.
TENNESSEE PROMISE: A NATIONAL MODEL
In 2013, Governor Haslam asked Randy to take a leave of absence from Radio Systems Corporation and join the Governor’s office as the unpaid Special Advisor on Higher Education.
Together, Randy and Governor Haslam created the state’s Drive to 55 workforce initiative and launched the Tennessee Promise, offering every high school graduate in Tennessee two years of community or technical college, tuition-free. The Tennessee Promise is funded through an endowment using excess lottery funds and therefore will never be a burden to taxpayers. The scholarship is considered “last-dollar,” which means it pays only what existing federal and state aid does not cover.
tnAchieves continues to serve as a partnering agency with the Tennessee Promise program to help make it work in 85 of the state’s 95 counties. Each student receiving the scholarship must complete eight hours of community service each semester and meet with a volunteer mentor to help guide and advise the student through the college process. To date, nearly 42,000 Tennesseans have volunteered their time to serve as tnAchieves mentors.
Because of the Tennessee Promise, the state’s community and technical colleges have experienced double digit growth in enrollment, and Tennessee now leads the nation in the number of students completing the Federal FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to help them pay for college.
But while we are increasing college access – we also need to focus on college completion. That’s why Randy joined with other top leaders to form and he now chairs Complete Tennessee – a non-profit education advocacy organization to help raise post-secondary completion rates and to help Tennessee become a national model in higher education attainment and innovation.
The creation of knoxAchieves, and later tnAchieves, provided college access to many students who had never dreamed of affording college before.
But it also shed light on a difficult realization: many of Tennessee’s students were simply not prepared for college. Randy knew we had to intervene earlier to truly help these students succeed.
Randy began meeting with University of Tennessee education and psychology professor, Dr. Bob Kronick, to get a better idea of why many students were falling behind. Dr. Kronick explained many students couldn’t focus at school because they were dealing with hunger, violence in their homes, and didn’t have access to dental or vision care.
It became clear to Randy that we can have the best teachers in the world, led by the greatest principals, but if children are living in a toxic environment, it is nearly impossible for them to be successful in school.
In 2010, Randy partnered with the University of Tennessee to launch the first University Assisted Community School, a public and private partnership, at Pond Gap Elementary School in Knoxville. Randy and Jenny contributed 100 percent of the costs for the first five years of the school.
Based on Pond Gap’s success, Knoxville’s Great Schools Partnership has now helped Knox County establish 18 more community schools. Each has a resource coordinator to recruit and align community resources. Each also has a site-steering committee to ensure that decisions are community-based and not top-down.