July 14th, 2015 10:29 pm by NATHAN BAKER
JOHNSON CITY PRESS
Near-peer advisors and program leaders pose Monday at an announcement for funding for the Niswonger Foundation’s college and career advisor program. (Nathan Baker/Johnson City Press)
An expiring federal grant could have meant the end of a college and career readiness program serving 13 school districts in the county, but the Niswonger Foundation, local colleges and another education-driven nonprofit pooled their resources to keep the program alive.
“This is going to be different than the previous program, but it will be a phenomenal opportunity,” Niswonger Foundation CEO Nancy Dishner said Tuesday in the auditorium of East Tennessee State University’s Culp Center. “We’re helping students to see their bigger dreams in life, their futures.”
Five years ago, the Niswonger Foundation received a $21 million i3 grant from the U.S. Department of Education and other foundations. It used the funds to create a consortium of 15 school districts in Northeast Tennessee with 30 high schools and institute college and career readiness programs at each school to help guide students into their post-primary school lives.
With the grant’s term expiring this September, Dishner said she new some creative thinking was needed to keep the program alive.
The foundation has substantial resources, but “we don’t have the capacity to match a $21 million grant,” she said.
Preserving three of the most beneficial programs, online courses for high school students, advanced placement class opportunities and staff advisers in every school, was of utmost importance to Dishner.
All of the consortium’s school districts agreed to maintain the online courses, and Scott Niswonger, one of the philanthropists who donated to the matching requirements on the i3 grant, donated $1 million to help continue the AP courses, but to keep the advisers, Dishner proposed a new program to three local colleges with counseling degree programs.
Under the program, made possible in-part from a $1.3 million grant from Care Foundation of America, a health and education nonprofit, ETSU, Milligan and Carson Newman will nominate graduating counseling students to serve as advisers to local high school students for a two-year period.
The freshly minted counselors will gain experience in their fields and the community will reap the benefits as students go on to college or to start their careers.
”I went to college in the 70s, and things have changed since back then,” Dishner said. “The new advisers are more familiar with the current college experience and can help the students understand what to expect.”
At Tuesday’s announcement, Dishner introduced 14 full and part-time advisers that will make up the inaugural class of counselors.
“It’s an adventure,” ETSU graduate Caroline Baird said. “There’s so much evidence showing that the near-peer model of advising works well.”
Modeled on a program called the Carolina College Advising Corps, the Niswonger program, called NiswongerCare, works on the theory that students will better relate to younger professionals with similar backgrounds.
After describing the new program to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who has instituted a number of education reform initiatives in his administration, Dishner said she believed there is interest to spread the model statewide.
“It’s our goal to spread this program across the state,” she said. “But it’s going to take all of us to do this work.”