Niswonger Foundation Celebrates Significant i3 Grant Findings

In 2010, the Niswonger Foundation was awarded a five-year investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The final i3 evaluation report has been released and is available HERE. This Executive Summary reports that the Niswonger Foundation had 5 statistically significant findings. This report reveals that, on average, students in the Niswonger Consortium Schools are more likely to: 1) have higher ACT scores; 2) enroll in AP courses during high school; 3) earn a score of 3 or higher on an AP exam; 4) enroll in college; and 5) persist in college. These data were calculated relative to similar students/schools in a comparison/control group.

Niswonger i3 Grant Overview (2010 – 2015)

Project Summary

The Niswonger Foundation’s Investing in Innovation (i3) grant awarded $17,751,044 from the U.S. Department of Education, which required twenty percent matching funds. These match funds were provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rural School and Community Trust, J.P. Morgan Foundation, and Niswonger Foundation’s Chairman and Founder, Scott M. Niswonger.

Through the i3 Grant, the Niswonger Foundation established a college and career consortium of 15 schools districts and 30 secondary schools to serve 27,000 students. The Consortium goals were to (1) ensure all students graduate high school college and career ready, especially students from under-represented populations such as rural; and (2) improve the likelihood that students would successfully enroll in and complete college. The Consortium used six strategies to achieve these goals, (1) to increase the number of Advanced Placement (AP) courses offered; (2) to increase the number of rigorous distance learning courses offered; (3) to increase the number of rigorous online courses available to all consortium secondary students; (4) to increase the number of dual enrollment courses available from post-secondary institutions; (5) develop a Course Review Team to determine the courses needed in AP, online, and distance learning, prioritized by Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) courses, Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses, and upper-level foreign-language courses; and (6) provide additional career and college counseling resources to every secondary student in the consortium.

What the i3 Grant Meant for Schools

Niswonger Online

The Niswonger i3 Grant, in 5 years, allowed students in all 30 consortium high schools to have the opportunity to choose from over 45 online classes. There were 426 enrollments in online classes in 2010/11 and in 2014/15 the enrollment had increased to 3,279, a 670% increase. The online classes afforded students the opportunity of taking summer classes to get ahead in credits, or to make up credits. The students who were getting ahead in credits now had the opportunity to take more AP, upper level foreign language, and dual enrollment classes, while at the same time continuing to participate in band, chorus, ROTC, CTE and other electives. These classes also provided students the skills needed to take online classes at the collegiate level. Because of the overwhelming success and high demand of the online program, the Niswonger Foundation in partnership with the 17 consortium schools will sustain the online program.

Distance Learning

Every school in the consortium has distance learning equipment, so all of the consortium students potentially had access to any class taught in the 30 high schools. Distance learning was piloted in some form by all of the schools over the 5 year period. A 47.5% increase in enrollment was recorded. This course delivery format, however, had several barriers. The main barriers for the distance learning classes were district calendars and school bell schedules being different. Although schools and systems aligned calendars and bell schedules, unpredictable weather, like snow and ice, caused some school to close. Also seat availability was low in popular classes, or the student’s open period did not match the class period. With these barriers and the low priority ranking of this format by school systems, the Niswonger College and Career Consortium (C3) will not sustain distance learning. However, some school districts will continue distance learning between the schools within their districts utilizing the technology that was put in place.

Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement (AP) classes and AP enrollment grew over the grant period. Almost 400 teachers in the Niswonger C3 attended AP institutes, and as of the 2015/16 school year, 90% of the consortium schools offer AP classes. Students in the remaining schools have the opportunity to take a variety of AP courses through the online program. This is significant because only 48% of Tennessee high schools offer AP classes. Consortium schools have received approximately $1.5 million for AP materials needed for new classes, new curriculum needs, and teacher training. The AP class enrollment increased by 30.9% over the grant period, which meant that 1000 more students took AP classes.

Dual Enrollment

Dual Enrollment allows secondary students to earn both high school and college credit while enrolled in a college class. During the 5-year grant, the Niswonger C3 partnered with 7 post-secondary institutions to provide dual enrollment classes. While the Tennessee Dual Enrollment Grant paid $300 per course, this amount left a balance of approximately $180 per course for students to pay. This difference is called the gap fee. The i3 Grant paid tuition (gap fees) and textbook costs totaling $1.6 million, which provided consortium students the opportunity to receive dual enrollment credit. The dual enrollment student count increased 109.4% during the 5-year grant period. This is evidence that the gap fee is a barrier for rural students who need the exposure to and rigor of the college environment to transition into college success. The textbooks purchased were loaned to students at no cost from a textbook library. These textbooks are available for students to assist in sustaining dual enrollment.

Another option created for students in 2013/14 was to participate in the mathematics SAILS (Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support) program. The SAILS program is designed for students who score below 19 on the ACT mathematics test, which would place them in learning support classes prior to college level math classes. In 2014/15 1,339 consortium students enrolled in SAILS math, and 90% of them completed all 5 modules. This means that over 1200 students were eligible to start college level math courses in the fall of 2015.

One of the largest barriers to college success is to be deficient in mathematics skills when entering college. This program assisted students to “sail” into college math ready for success.

(The chart below represents the increases over the four strategies supported and created by the i3 grant.)

Enrolloment Chart

College and Career Counseling

Research says that a student is three times more likely to enroll in college if a counselor provides the opportunity for them to visit a college campus and assists them with financial aid information. This is especially true in rural areas. The Niswonger i3 Grant provided nine college and career counselors to assist consortium students in rural northeast Tennessee. This provided opportunities for college visits, individual and group information, and assistance with financial aid. FAFSA completion increased 10% over the grant period. The i3 counselors were at the schools one to two days per week and assisted with developing the college-going culture, sponsored and helped with college application week, college visits, financial aid meetings, FAFSA completion appointments, support for online courses, individual and group counseling, helping students choose a college and major, and assisting in the transition to the post-secondary environment. Through the i3 grant, the counselors were able to assist the consortium students during the summer, after graduation, with college orientation and transition. The school districts gave high priority to sustaining the college advising aspect of the i3 grant. The Niswonger Foundation in partnership with Care Foundation of America will sustain college advising in the 30 consortium high schools.

Professional Development

Each of the strategies implemented with i3 grant funds supported training and professional development. Online teachers and school liaisons attended training two to three times per year to teach and implement the online program. The learning resources coordinator led the training as well as provided professional development locally, at the state level, and hosted educators and directors at national online learning conferences. Distance learning teachers were provided professional development and technology to support the distance learning initiatives consortium wide. AP teachers not only attended AP Summer Institutes but they formed and participated in professional development in content specific AP Academies. Professional development was provided through MathElites, STEM Academies, CTE Academies, Counselor Convenings, and Hands-On Days. The annual Niswonger School Success Symposium is available to K-12 educators and was the catalyst for the other summer PD opportunities. In the summer of 2015, the Niswonger Foundation and the i3 Consortium hosted 22 professional development opportunities that were attended by over 1400 educators in northeast Tennessee.

The professional development offered over the 5-year grant period allowed the quality of math and science instruction in the schools to increase significantly more than the comparison schools. (See the chart below).

Prfessional Development Chart


In the 5-year grant period, one of the most significant outcomes was the formation of the consortium in northeast Tennessee. This meant that no longer did districts, schools, or teachers work alone or in districts only, but there were relationships formed to carry on this work many years after the i3 Grant closes on October 1, 2015. So what did this grant mean for districts, schools, and students? Working relationships were formed to sustain and improve educational opportunities for all students in northeast Tennessee through online classes, distance learning, AP classes, dual enrollment classes, STEM and CTE classes and college advising.