NiswongerCare (College Access Reaches Everyone)

Sustaining the work of the i3 College and Career Consortium

i3 GrantA lesson learned from the Foundation's counselors, funded through the i3 Investing in Innovation grant, and the school systems they served, was that post-secondary and career counseling is vital to building and sustaining a college-going and career ready culture, ensuring that students have every opportunity to seek a post-secondary credential.

As the i3 grant was ending, the Niswonger Foundation and leaders from the consortium schools identified the college and career counselors as a highly effective component they were eager to sustain. Professional counselors have been serving each school to focus exclusively on the essential elements of this program which includes assisting students with post-secondary education choices, creating a career-focused plan with students, supporting the logistics of carrying out students' plans (including applications, financial aid, campus visits, interpreting correspondence from institutions, and tracking progress), and continual encouragement for high school grads and parents with a summer program that extends services to support recent graduates to their matriculation into post-secondary institutions in the fall.

Without a partner, the Niswonger Foundation and the school systems of Northeast Tennessee would have been unable to sustain the post-secondary and career advisement that was supported through the i3 grant funds. The Niswonger Foundation sought a partner to join in this effort, and received a grant from the Care Foundation of America to sustain this work. This partnership has resulted in a two-year 1.3 million dollar grant. Tom Davenport, Chairman of the Board of the Care Foundation, immediately understood the need for sustaining a focus on post-secondary education, commenting, "Navigating the college or technical school admissions process is not easy, particularly for a first generation college-bound student and his or her family. It is important to provide the opportunity for students to have advisement to assist with questions regarding college and career choices." Mr. Davenport further stated: "We believe we will produce a model that can be scaled across the State of Tennessee."

Scott M. Niswonger, Niswonger Foundation Chairman and Founder, stated "We are proud to join with the Care Foundation of America in an effort to ensure that all high school students in Northeast Tennessee hear the message of the importance of preparing themselves for a career that will enrich their lives, support their future families, and sustain their communities."

NiswongerCARE program was initiated for the 2015-16 school year. This program serves 31 high schools in the First Congressional District and will impact nearly 30,000 high school students. "We honor the successes of our i3 Grant counseling staff and will work to sustain the important momentum they have established in the past five years," states Niswonger Foundation President and CEO, Dr. Nancy Dishner. "The NiswongerCARE program will combine the skills gained in the i3 grant project with elements of a national model used by the College Advising Corp. With this model, we will work to support and enhance the important work already being accomplished by our region's high school counselors."

Based on the experience of the Niswonger Foundation and other successful college advising programs (such as the College Advising Corps3), the new NiswongerCARE program will increase student access to college and career advising. The staffing includes a director, Denise Arnold; a master’s prepared counselor, Anita Kilbourne-Greer, eight baccalaureate level specialists, and six interns from the graduate counseling programs at Carson-Newman University, East Tennessee State University, and Milligan College. (Please see "Meet the NiswongerCARE Staff" in the "About Us" section of this website).

This innovative staffing model serves more than the purpose of assisting high school students with career and post-secondary education planning. Using a purposeful design of professional counselors, less experienced/near-peer/new professionals, and graduate school interns, the program will function as a training and development opportunity for a new generation of young professionals who will be serving Northeast Tennessee beyond the scope of this grant. For those who will continue in school counseling, they will have gained a wealth of practical experience and professional development opportunities. This is also the most cost-effective program model.

Description of the Advisor Training:
In July 2015, NiswongerCARE was in full swing with nine recent college graduates as full-time college access advisors, along with a program director and associate director. Additionally, through partnerships with East Tennessee State University, Carson-Newman University, and Milligan College, six college access advisors/interns, currently pursuing their master's degrees in counseling, were added.

July and August 2015 were spent in training to ensure that Advisors had the knowledge and skills needed to assist students in navigating the college going process. They received intensive training designed to prepare them to help students with the myriad of college going milestones from exploring post-secondary opportunities, navigating the college admissions maze, applying for financial aid, registering and preparing for the ACT, to transitioning to college. Training also focused on the importance of collaborating with counselors, teachers and administrators to promote a college-going culture into the life of the school.

Because it is important to help students choose the college or program that is the right fit for them, training also includes college visits to all of the public and private post-secondary institutions in our region. Advisors tour each campus and meet with representatives who provide detailed information about their institution. Advisors leave with first-hand knowledge regarding majors and programs, cost, application deadlines, and available financial aid and scholarships.

Not only do the advisors have the benefit of learning from the extensive counseling and college advising experience of the program director and associate director, but they are also provided the opportunity to interact with several other experts in the field. Erica Adams, a representative from Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, provided a comprehensive overview of state and federal financial aid including TN Promise and HOPE Scholarships. Current school counselors also share insights and skills on how to engage students and parents in the college-going process.

Advisors are further engaged through a virtual community where they are encouraged to discuss various training topics, as well as make regular blog posts about their training experience. This platform was also utilized for their participation in a book study on "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" and how it impacts students and their families. This platform continues to provide advisors with a way to share creative approaches they have discovered to reach and connect with students, as well as many other best practices and publications they have created.

Meet Our NiswongerCare Staff

Niswonger i3 Grant Overview
(2010 – 2015)

Our Partnerships

Project Summary

In 2010, the Niswonger Foundation was awarded a five-year Investing in Innovation (i3) grant in the amount of $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.)


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).


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 September 30, 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.

There are hundreds of anecdotal descriptions of personal successes through the i3 grant period. As an example, one high school had, for the first time in its history, a National Merit Scholar, a Roan Scholar, a Niswonger Scholar and an Embry-Riddle full scholarship in the 2015 graduating class. When asked how they were able to gain these scholarships, each student credited it to the new course opportunities and academic rigor at their high school made possible by the Niswonger i3 Grant.