For years Lorina Upshaw has heard negative news about Howard School of Academics and Technology.
Bad test scores and behavior issues have at times dominated headlines, but Upshaw believes in the students at the historically black south Market Street school.
"These kids are knowledgeable, and they can do as well as other kids with the proper training and the right opportunities," said Upshaw, a member of the Howard class of 1969.
So Upshaw, over the last two years, has gone about bringing that opportunity to Howard.
An information representative at TVA for 34 years, Upshaw asked her bosses to create internship opportunities for Howard students. Earlier this year, TVA freed up funding for five part-time internship positions at Howard.
It's not unusual for TVA to use student help, but this is the first time the utility has set up a satellite office to make it happen. TVA also sent a half-time retired engineer to oversee the students and computers and document scanning equipment to make it all work.
And now, after roughly one school year, TVA said the program has worked so well it will continue it for another school year at Howard.
The students work for just an hour and a half each day and are paid minimum wage, but the teens and Upshaw think the program will have lasting benefits.
"Everyone else ... they volunteer with the principal or at a nursing home, but we're here working and actually getting paid," said 16-year-old sophomore NuQeilla Robinson, one of the interns.
State education officials have watched Howard School of Academics and Technology closely over the last year as state officials evaluate whether the school should be, along with a dozen of the state's other lowest-performing schools, taken over and run in a special state Alternative School District.
Recently, leaders have suggested Howard has made enough improvement in its graduation rate to avoid that harsh step and some of the other sanctions that would come along with it.
"Howard is now in an 'improving status.' It's still in the commissioner's improvement district, but we know we've made the graduation rate two years in a row," said Superintendent Jim Scales.
"When you show the kind of progress we've shown here, that should show the state we have a good focus, a good plan and a good leader in the building," he said.
Two weeks ago, the state's new education commissioner told the Chattanooga Times Free Press a decision on Howard's future would be communicated to the system "soon."
It's not just busy work. Robinson and her classmates are converting hand-written files and hand-drawn engineering plans into digital files that can be searched and obtained by TVA employees. At the same time, the interns are getting exposure to working in the real world.
"We hope it provides them professional training," Upshaw said. "We hope that it gives them a better chance at getting a job."
The engineering file conversion teaches the students about computer-aided drafting, and the file-conversion work exposes them to digital document management. Both are growing fields of study at area technical schools, Upshaw said.
"I hope that they take this work and think, 'I could work at TVA one day.' Maybe in the same office with me," Upshaw said.
All the work is supervised by John Geeter, a retired TVA electrical engineer who approves the students' work.
So far, program organizers say the TVA School-to-Work Program has been successful. One senior has told Upshaw because of the exposure she's received in the class, she would like to pursue employment in the document management field, perhaps with TVA.
That's a point of pride for Upshaw, who said she wants to serve as a role model for students at Howard.
"It makes me proud to know an organization as big as TVA will buy into this program to help these kids," Upshaw said. "With the proper training and encouragement, these kids can do it."
Contact staff writer Adam Crisp at email@example.com or 423-757-6323. Follow him on line: www.facebook.com/crispreporter and www.twitter.com/adam_crisp.