At Clinton High School, the question is not, “Where are you going to college?” It is, “Are you going to college?” As Maryville College student and CHS graduate Blake Douglas explained, many CHS students stay in Clinton after graduation, not necessarily because they want to.
“[The students] don’t realize they have any other option, and a lot of them don’t realize that the benefits of college will exceed the work they’ll need to put in, in high school,” Douglas said.
Teachers from the CHS Freshmen Academy are working to combat that attitude.
On Sept. 27, a group of CHS teachers and staff members brought 200 members of the freshmen class to MC to participate in the Mountain Challenge ropes course and to tour the campus for the second year in a row. The trip was part of an effort to prepare the students for the rest of their high school careers and, hopefully, college educations.
The idea started last fall at a planning session with the teachers of the Freshmen Academy, a program at CHS which focuses on building a strong foundation in English and mathematics the first year of high school.
“Originally, we just wanted to do the ropes course as a form of team-building for the freshmen, but because there was one on the MC campus, it gave us an extra opportunity to try to get the kids excited about going to college,” said CHS counselor Debbie Hawk.
The apathy surrounding college at CHS, as well as many other high schools in East Tennessee, has multiple roots. One of these is the home environment.
“We have kids who may come from families where no one has gone to college,” said Filip Leander, an English teacher at CHS.
Douglas, who saw this with many of his fellow students while at CHS, added that it can be “difficult for kids to break that chain when family members have either not wanted to or been unable to go to college.”
Another factor is concern over the financial demands of a college education.
“Kids and parents think that they can’t afford college and think they can get a job without college,” Hawk said. “Sadly, in the economic conditions we see now, we are seeing students with college educations starting at lower-level jobs than they would have expected five years ago. This means competition for employment has become even stronger, and a college diploma will always win over a high school diploma.”
Lack of planning also plays a role in keeping high school graduates at home or at two-year schools without further pursuit of bachelor’s degrees.
“From a teaching and counseling perspective, I see a lot of bright students who don’t think about college until their senior year, and then their opportunities are limited by the fact that they goofed off as freshmen and sophomores,” Hawk said.
CHS’s work with MC helps to fight all these causes by exposing the students to college early in high school. Jennifer Beavers, a math teacher at CHS, along with Hawk and other teachers, has been instrumental in turning this idea into a reality.
“I want every child to be able to visualize going to college. Bringing them [to MC] and giving them a tour and letting them have fun allows them to do that,” said Beavers.
The program has two main parts: a tour of MC’s campus and the Mountain Challenge ropes course.
The tour of MC allowed students to get a feel for life on a college campus, and for many of them, it was their first time on a residential campus. One student explained that she had only been looking at applying to a community college like her sister but was excited to see the MC campus and to realize that she had other options. Students also said that hearing their tour guides’ college stories helped them understand that there were ways to get financial aid and that college was fun and not just work.
The purpose of having students participate in the ropes course was to help them learn respect for themselves and each other. Although rain from the night before prevented the students from going out onto the actual course, they took advantage of other team-building activities associated with it.
“Getting through high school is a group effort and not a solo thing,” said MC senior and Mountain Challenge worker Nick Iott, adding that the activities he led the students in were meant to teach them how to work together.
Most of the students seemed to get the message. Iott said that he thought that at least some of the students learned that they need to take things seriously and respect each other in order to get things done.
Fellow senior Shannon Woolfolk agreed.
“When we were debriefing, a lot of them suggested ‘You know we need to mature,’” Woolfolk said.
In the two years that CHS has been trying out this program, it has seemed to be successful.
“Every year, we have a student that doesn’t want to go to college and then after visiting Maryville changes his mind,” Leander said.
Beavers agreed that, when asked about college plans, students are saying they want to go to MC.
“We think [the trip to MC] planted that seed.”
Beavers and the rest of the Freshmen Academy teachers hope to continue this program in the future, and the students and staff of MC play a vital role in its success. “MC students are nice and warm with the kids,” said Leander, and that is what makes MC inviting to these students.
“This is a worthy cause, and [MC students and staff] should invest their time and energy into it, for these kids and other kids,” Beavers said.
Little by little, it’s making a difference.