By Jennifer Sicking | Photo by Wade Payne
As Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of tnAchieves, readily admits, “Really, a lot of what we do is drawn out of mistakes I made as a student.”
According to the Institute for Education Statistics, one in five principals in the 2011-12 school year left their school by the 2012-13 school year. Additional research shows that 50 percent of principals are not retained beyond their third year of leading a school.
Those mistakes are helping thousands of Tennesseans find success.
As a freshman enrolling at the University of the South, DeAlejandro didn’t file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). She didn’t know that such a thing existed.
“No one told us,” she says.
She’s making sure that high school seniors hear that message along with the one that there is a path forward for higher education, whether it’s attending a technology college, a community college or a four-year university. In 2018, nearly 60,000 Tennessee high school students in 90 counties filled out the FAFSA form with the help of tnAchieves. With the national average of seniors completing the FAFSA at 61.2 percent, tnAchieves’ filing rate hit 87.6 percent.
After earning a Master of Arts in political science from UT Knoxville in 2004 and going on to completing all but her dissertation in a doctorate in political studies, DeAlejandro realized she didn’t want to be a professor. While working as deputy chief of staff for then-Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, she was handed a new project called knoxAchieves to help Knox County students attend college. In it, she found her passion.
“I can’t imagine doing any other kind of work,” she says.
Since 2015, tnAchieves has partnered with Tennessee Promise to increase higher education opportunities for high school students across the state by providing last-dollar scholarships along with mentor guidance. It’s changing the students’ thoughts from “I can’t” to “I can” by removing as many barriers as possible.
While helping students fund college remains critical, the 9,000 mentors living in 90 of Tennessee’s counties provide the heartbeat to the program. The mentors—who live in the students’ home counties—answer students’ questions ranging from “What is a credit hour?” to “What do I do if I fail a math test?”
“We quickly understood that funding would be critical, but if students lacked support, it would be a zero-sum game,” DeAlejandro says. “Now, it’s the heart of the program.”
83% attend community college
8% attend four-year college
8% attend Tennessee College of Applied Technology
52% low-income, Pell grant eligible
40% first-generation college students
19.4 average ACT score
3.05 average high school grade-point average
3-year graduation rate
34% TN Promise
13% non-TN Promise
68% TN Promise
58% non-TN Promise
In another component of the program, students have returned 2.55 million volunteer hours to their communities—giving back to those who have given to them.
Whether the high school students go on to earn a welding certificate, an associate’s degree in computer information technology or a bachelor’s degree in English, DeAlejandro knows that credential is the only path to economic prosperity and independence for many of the tnAchieves students. In turn, that impacts Tennessee’s future.
“One student at a time, we’re building a future workforce to bring businesses into the state,” she says.
Changing one student’s life can change a family, which can change a community, which can change a state.