With a $1 million grant from the state, the Public Education Foundation is launching a college mentor program for struggling high school students, officials announced Thursday.
SOAR, funded by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, will pair college students with graduating high schoolers who plan to attend Chattanooga State Community College and transfer to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Officials say the program will go a long way in encouraging at-risk students to get through to a bachelor's degree.
"What we are looking at is a change in culture, to get students focused on higher education," said Hamilton County School Superintendent Jim Scales. "We want to continue to expand the number of students going onto higher education and this is one way we hope to move forward.
"It's great for the students."
Students from Tyner Academy, Brainerd, Central, Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy high schools are eligible for the program, which will focus on assisting first-generation college students with low standardized test scores, said Bill Kennedy, director of secondary school initiatives at the Public Education Foundation.
As juniors and seniors in high school, students will begin receiving campus tours, help with financial planning and applications and developmental courses, he said.
In their last semester of high school, each student will be placed with one of 12 peer coaches from Chattanooga State who will give advice and check their grades and class attendance.
During the second year, the students will have UTC coaches, and those who stay on course will participate in a summer program that allows them to visit business sites and do job-shadowing internships.
"It's going to provide a special incentive for kids to do well as they enter the community college continuum, and it's going to impact them by creating a [link]... between Chattanooga State and UTC," said Kennedy. "There will be consistent communication between the three systems, so kids are guaranteed success."
SOAR - which stands for Student Opportunities, Access and Retention - and similar programs that help students move fluidly from two-year to four-year schools, have become extremely popular statewide as colleges work hard to increase their number of transfer students.
Early last year, the state Legislature passed a higher education reform bill mandating that colleges do more to push students to start their college career at community college. Students who do so are more likely to transfer and graduate with degrees, higher education officials say.
Colleges that increase their number of transfer students get additional state support. The bill also forced four-year schools to eliminate remedial courses, pushing that responsibility to the community college level.
"We know that students who come to us without adequate preparation for college-level work are less likely to succeed, and that students can flounder without a strong support system," said Jim Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State.