Shi Mae Bowling was ready to drop out of high school and get her GED diploma.
Her family moved to the United States from India ahead of her sophomore year, and it was a culture shock going to an American high school for the first time, she said. Bowling found the American school system less challenging than the one she left behind in India, leaving her feeling less motivated, she said.
Bowling's transcript didn't transfer, so she was placed in freshman classes before testing out. All together, it made for not a good year, she said.
Then she found out about University High, a two-year program through Hamilton County Schools that allows students to take college classes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
"Adjusting to the American school system, which was a lot easier, made me feel very burned out. I was kind of done," Bowling, now a junior at University High, said in an interview. "But then I found out about this. It just seemed, you know, they were really focusing on students."
University High, which launched this fall with 56 juniors, was designed as a college pipeline for high school students who might not have considered a four-year university education before. Through the program, students take college-level courses taught by university faculty, as well as high school-level classes taught by Hamilton County Schools teachers. They are also given resources to explore their career interests.
The next class of high school juniors will join University High in fall 2024, bringing the program to full capacity. The program is free to students.
"Here they feel really special. They're in a cohort of students that have never done anything like this before," University High Principal Arielle Garcia Hayes said in an interview. "I would hope that they feel like they got an experience like no other. We really want to build opportunity and access."
University High welcomes first cohort to UTC, aims to overcome barriers to higher education
One of the largest components of the University High program is interest-based learning. On Fridays, students visit local businesses and community partners to learn more about different professions and get practical experience.
Currently, the "Focus Friday" experiences are visits to programs at each of UTC's four major colleges, but they will eventually expand to include off-campus opportunities. Over the next few weeks, students will rotate through visits to UTC's athletic training lab, the Rollins College of Business and WUTC, the public radio station on campus.
Later, rather than having students visit every "Focus Friday" experience, they'll get to choose one experience or job shadow each week based on their interests. By their senior year, those visits will turn into internships.
"We want this to be a truly personalized school," Hamilton County Schools Director of Innovation and Fine Arts Grant Knowles said in an interview. "While we have 56 students at our school, it's realistically like 56 different personal experiences."
University High students have access to all of the resources — except housing — provided to UTC students, and the program is using its partnership with the university to provide students with opportunities they might not have otherwise had. Beyond the "Focus Friday" visits, science teacher Juney Shober, for instance, has invited the financial aid department to talk to his personal finance class.
"Here, we are talking about personal finance and loans, and student loans are probably the most relevant type of loan in the next few years of your life," he told students Tuesday afternoon. "Rather than me trying to do a bunch of research and give you a kind of nonexpert take on things, we're on UTC's campus: Why don't I get the experts to come talk to us?"
In part, UTC views the program as a form of recruitment. But if students choose to go to a different university, then UTC knows it helped give them a strong foundation, said Shewanee Howard-Baptiste, the university's vice provost of academic outreach.
The goal of the program was to get students excited about their passions, as well as eliminate barriers to college access, she said.
"One of the things that we realized early on is that there are some real gems in our public school system. I think our campus feels really privileged that we get to support those students," Howard-Baptiste said in a video interview. "We want to get them excited about being a future Moc."
After two years in the program, University High students will earn 14 to 20 college credit hours.
Addison Howard, a University High junior, has wanted to be a surgeon since she was 12 years old, but there was always the question of whether she'd be able to afford to go to college. Knowing that she won't have to pay for four full years of college because she's getting credits now for free helps, she said.
She described the program as "very choose your own adventure."
"It is the most incredible experience I've ever had," Howard said in an interview. "We are encouraged and supported in everything that we need. It's incredible, truly. Never seen anything like it."
The district offers a similar opportunity through Hamilton County Collegiate High School at Chattanooga State Community College. But while Collegiate High is its own distinct high school where students typically have to pay tuition, University High students stay enrolled in their zoned high school. It also targets historically underserved students and removes a financial barrier.
Hamilton County Schools and UTC have worked together to ensure the program is free for students by applying for grants, like Tennessee's dual enrollment grant, or absorbing the cost of additional fees, Howard-Baptiste said.
"A lot of what we're doing here is working to overcome or remove barriers for students," Knowles said. "A lot of our students wouldn't see themselves going to a four-year university because nobody else in the family has or financially it wouldn't make sense. Or for some of our students, they weren't thriving in a traditional high school setting."
Similar to Bowling, University High junior Morgan Wyatt was tired of her high school. She was considering being home-schooled until she learned about the program.
Wyatt liked how the University High staff took into consideration each student's interests, she said. She named the "Focus Friday" visit locations as an example.
"They intentionally are always giving us the space to say how we feel and do things that we want to do, rather than just throwing us into stuff," Wyatt said in an interview. "It's just little stuff like that, that lets us know that they really are listening to us and are here just to support us through everything."
Students have the choice to take one of three college courses this semester: criminal justice, cultural anthropology or introduction to sociology. The curriculum in their high school English class is paired with their college course. In future semesters, they'll have the option to take additional college courses.
Staff members chose the classes based on conversations with UTC college deans about which professors had bought into the idea of University High and would provide students with a good foundation for moving forward.
"They make sure to treat us equally as college students but also engage us," said Howard, who is taking criminal justice. "It's not just sit there while I talk at you. It's, let's learn and let's teach."
Each day begins with an advisory period, which includes college prep, experiential learning and individualized support. Students also have an engagement block built into their schedule to give them time to engage with UTC campus activities or visit their professor's or teacher's office hours.
On Tuesday afternoon during that block, some students gathered in English teacher Kate Knox's room to arrange posters to decorate the classroom. Others sat interspersed with UTC students in Lupton Hall's communal spaces. And the garden club met with Shober to see who at UTC they could contact to get access to a gardening space. Knowles pointed them toward a professor who runs a greenhouse on campus.
"One of the things that we wanted to make sure students feel comfortable with was structured unstructured time," Knowles said. "Typically, you go from a hard schedule senior year to a wide open schedule freshman year. I don't like that."
The current juniors came from 10 different Hamilton County schools. To be admitted to the program, they needed to have a minimum 3.0 GPA and provide two letters of recommendation. The students were chosen based on interviews with them and their parents. Around 100 students applied, Garcia Hayes said.
While the students take all of their classes at the university, they can participate in extracurricular activities at their zoned high school if they choose.
For Bowling, being at University High has helped bring back her motivation.
"I loved school. I loved learning, and I was really not loving it anymore," she said. "I wanted to get that back, and I think I have."
Sophomores interested in going to University High next year can apply via the Hamilton County school choice lottery application from Nov. 13 to Jan. 31.
The University High program will host two open houses — at 1 p.m. Oct. 14 and 6 p.m. Oct. 19 — at UTC's University Center Auditorium for prospective students and families.