Opening a ‘world of possibilities’ for students

Chandler’s Project GRAD participants look much like she did as an at-risk teen

Friday, September 14, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 37
By Nancy Henderson

Vrondelia “Ronni” Chandler had already suffered more trauma than a teenager should have to deal with. Her father’s alcoholism led to his death when she was 14. Two years later, she became pregnant with her daughter, Nicole.

Not one to slack off, Chandler persevered, learning to type 95 error-free words a minute and take super-quick shorthand while pursuing a dual college prep-technical track at Austin-East High School. Then, at 18, the unthinkable happened.

Her mom, a single mother of five who had been Chandler’s rock, died from a reoccurrence of breast cancer. For Chandler, there was only one thing to do when her mother fell ill: withdraw from her business and management studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“I just needed to be there for her,” says Chandler, 60, executive director of Project GRAD Knoxville, a K-16 program that supports disadvantaged students in 14 urban schools by increasing academic achievement, high school graduation rates and college attendance. “For a long time [my education] was unfinished business.”

That wouldn’t always be the case. In 1978, Chandler took a job as the president’s assistant at then-fledgling Pellissippi State Community College and, for 23 years, climbed the ladder in positions of increasing responsibility. She also took advantage of her employer’s education reimbursement benefit, earning a general associate’s degree at Pellissippi, then a B.S. with honors in business and organizational management from Tusculum University, all while working fulltime.

She had just been promoted to director of community outreach and engagement for the brand-new Magnolia Avenue campus when a study group of eight Knoxville volunteers, including Chandler, gathered to discuss ways to keep more inner-city kids in high school and to be educated beyond that point. One of the planners had heard about Project GRAD, launched in Houston in 1988 as a scholarship program, and it seemed like a viable option.

In 2001, Chandler left Pellissippi State to become the program-operations director for Knox County’s first public-private education partnership.

“Most of the kids that we serve are navigating challenging circumstances,” she says. “Eighty-six percent are from low-income circumstances. I know what it’s like to be in that place, to have talent and potential, but you’re just struggling a lot in your family. So the opportunity to work with young people who have great potential, but who are having to navigate a lot of other things, really drew me to the work.

“At the highest level of the work that we do, we inspire hope and opportunity. And that really makes a difference in the lives of the kids that we serve.”

When the founding executive director, Jerry Hodges, retired in the fall of 2004, the Project GRAD board of directors unanimously voted to hire Chandler for the post. She still does both jobs, she says with a chuckle, because she was never replaced as program director.

Described by others as caring and warm, Chandler knows how to respectfully negotiate with various personalities to get things done. She considers herself an encourager. “I listen really well, and I try to listen for what’s not being said and for the underlying concerns of what’s underneath their argument,” she explains. “One of my strongest skills is that I listen with intentionality.”

“Ronni is not afraid to challenge, but she does it in a way that brings people together rather than dividing them,” says Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, who has known Chandler for more than 20 years. “She is a role model for effective leadership. Ronni understands that you can’t burn bridges when controversy and disagreements arise. You have to stay focused and civil as you work through the differing opinions. You have to strategically work with partners to find a solution or compromise that can work.”

Project GRAD serves 7,000 students annually in 14 elementary, middle and high schools, including Chandler’s alma mater Austin-East Magnet, in inner-city communities battling poverty, unemployment and high crime rates. Forty-nine percent of the kids are African American, 16 percent are Latino and 34 percent are white.

“Some of our students would be fine, but a number of them, if they don’t have opportunities to do field trips or have college and career fairs at the school, or take part in activities where we remove the barrier of transportation, they [won’t be able to] say, ‘If I can see it, I can be it,’” Chandler adds. “We want to show them that there’s a wide world of possibilities for them that they may not even envision for themselves right now.”

Based out of Austin-East Magnet and Fulton high schools, Project GRAD staff members offer an “academy model” there and float among the other schools, offering college and career guidance and hosting company spokespersons who talk about their businesses. The Knoxville Police Department, for instance, does a show-and-tell with SWAT gear, KUB (Knoxville Utilities Board) representatives bring their lineman equipment and local TV professionals set up a tripod camera and let students interview each other. At the two high schools, GRAD coaches provide personal, social and emotional support while helping with college admissions applications and essays, career research and financial aid.

Each year, summer institutes give about 300 GRAD students an in-depth look at the campuses of Pellissippi State and UT. The latter is a residential experience, with high schoolers living in dorms for one week. Academic and vocational technologies scholarships are also available. Chandler notes that Project GRAD has awarded more than $6.5 million in scholarships since the first class went off to college in 2005.

This year, Knoxville’s WATE 6 TV station broadcast a phone-a-thon that drew more than $40,000 in donations for the purchase of 100 laptops for scholarship recipients with proof of enrollment in higher education.

Also new this year: Hands on the Future paid summer internships. “We had 10 different sites that were not restaurant, fast food or grocery stores,” Chandler notes proudly. “There’s nothing wrong with those jobs, but there was a marketing firm, a real estate company, the Chamber and a number of different types of jobs. We tried to get employment that was on the bus line, so that transportation wouldn’t be a barrier for the kids to get there.”

The employers provided a 6- to 8-week “eye-opening” experience, paying more than minimum wage.

Between managing Project Grad and mentoring students, Chandler still is present each Sunday morning at First AME Zion Church reading bible verses and singing in the choir.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

Funding for Project GRAD comes from three sources: public donations, business and higher education partners and the Knox County school system. At an April meeting of the Knox County School Board, hundreds of residents, students and teachers showed up in support of Project GRAD a few months after the board wavered on its $1 million piece of the funding and questioned the impact of the organization.

“There were almost 80 people that spoke at the public forum till almost 1 in the morning, just talking about the difference that having the support of the Project GRAD resources has made in the community,” Chandler recalls. “That was humbling.”

The board later approved financial backing for the 2018-19 school year.

The statistics showing Project GRAD’s success easily roll off Chandler’s tongue. In 2001 when the organization was formed, she says, the high school graduation rate at Austin-East and Fulton was about 50 percent. In 2016, it had increased to 78 percent. Seventeen years ago, 30 percent of students enrolled in some form of post-secondary classes; today, 56 percent of them do, and the number is rising. Nationally, about 10 percent of student from low-income households finish their post-secondary education, while Project GRAD’s rate is 48 percent.

New Project GRAD college students benefit from GroupMeet, a social media app that connects them with other GRAD scholars on campus and helps them find tutors and other assistance. But Chandler attributes the outstanding graduation numbers primarily to success coaches who visit students on campus, even in other states.

Among other things, they treat students to dinner out and bring with them “scholar’s buckets” filled with personal hygiene products, detergent, money to wash clothes and other necessities, “things that, if your family was able to send you a care package, would be in it,” Chandler says. “But a lot of our families aren’t able to do that, because the family resources just don’t provide for that.”

Chandler talks about one student, a first-generation college attendee in Chattanooga, who called one of the Project GRAD coaches “because he was literally having a meltdown.

He was kind of getting the runaround at financial aid. He would provide one thing and they’d say, ‘You have to provide something else,’ and he was so frustrated. He was calling from his dorm room because he was packing and was coming back.”

“Stay where you are. I’m on my way,” responded Project GRAD’s lead coach, Annette Long, who hopped in her car and drove an hour and a-half to the Chattanooga campus. “We’ll talk about what they’re saying you need and what you need to do about it.”

Upon her arrival, Long accompanied the young man to the financial aid office, met with his advisor and offered moral support each step of the way while allowing him to speak up for himself. He went on to become an engineer.

“He told [Long] that that day was the breaking point for him,” Chandler says. “He is so committed to helping other young people who might be in that place, that he has given his personal information to the vice president for student enrollment at that college, and said, ‘If you ever have a kid who’s having that kind of moment, call me.’”

Since 2005, more than 400 GRAD students have earned their post-secondary credentials, mostly four-year degrees. Chandler rattles off a few that stand out in her mind: five attorneys, a handful of engineers and school nurses, a couple of Knox County teachers, a police officer, a firefighter. Three graduates now work for Project GRAD fulltime.

Not everyone completes the program, however, and there are challenges. Sometimes the students don’t realize the value of the opportunities they’re given. This summer, one person passed up a paid summer internship because he didn’t understand how it differed from his regular summer job.

Peer pressure is more influential than ever, and kids are exposed to drugs and other substances at an earlier age. And many are being raised by grandparents or guardians other than their parents, which shifts the family balance.

Despite the obstacles, Chandler is convinced this is what she’s supposed to be doing.

“Education is a game-changer, and it literally changed the trajectory for my family every generation after my grandparents,” she adds, noting that her father’s mother, Granny Louise, worked as a local banker’s maid for 30 years to put her son through college.

An accomplished soprano vocalist since fifth grade – she joined a traveling group in high school called the A-E Singers – Chandler still performs at church and community events, including Mayor Rogero’s inauguration in 2011, where she belted out Yolanda Adams’ soulful What About the Children, the same tune she sang at a national conference in Orlando sponsored by Ret. Gen. Colin Powell and America’s Promise Alliance.

“Ronni has an unbelievably beautiful singing voice,” Rogero points out. “She sings with such beauty and passion that I am touched every time I hear her sing that song.”

Chandler is also the author of “Light from a Candle: Hope for the Broken Believer in a Time of Devastation,’’ published in 2015 and available online or at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

Drawing from her own experiences with breast cancer and the death of her youngest daughter, Sparkle, to adolescent suicide in 1991, she wrote the gift book to encourage others “going through a devastating time,” she says. “I wrote that as a way of helping people to hang on.”