University High

By Chuck Wasserstrom

Photos by Angela Foster

University High Principal Arielle Garcia Hayes welcomes a student with a hug.

University High Principal Arielle Garcia Hayes greets a student on the first day of class.

A year ago, Morgan Wyatt knew she wanted to go to college and pursue a career in the medical field.

The problem was that Wyatt, then a Chattanooga area high school sophomore, was wrestling with the secondary school experience. It wasn’t exactly her thing, she says.

“I was actually considering homeschooling for the rest of high school so that I could just get it over with. It just wasn’t fitting for me,” she recalls, “and I didn’t really enjoy school.”

University High students, along with Scrappy Moc, cut the ribbon to kick off the new high school in April 2023.
University High students, along with Scrappy Moc, cut the ribbon to kick off the new high school in April 2023.

“Around that time, University High was introduced. Once I heard about this, I was, like, ‘I have to get in.’”

This academic year, Wyatt and 55 other high school juniors are part of the initial cohort of students attending University High, a collaboration of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Hamilton County Schools (HCS)—the fifth-largest school district in the state serving approximately 45,000 students in southeastern Tennessee.

University High is headquartered on the UTC campus and serves students and their families at no cost to them. The high school juniors, who spent their sophomore years at 10 different schools throughout Hamilton County, are enrolled in college-level courses taught by UTC faculty and directly supported by high school courses taught by HCS teachers.

UTC Vice Provost for Academic Outreach Shewanee Howard-Baptiste and HCS Director of Innovation and Fine Arts Grant Knowles partnered on University High, working closely for nearly two years in getting the program up and running.

“Both organizations are committed to changing the lives of students and their families,” Howard-Baptiste says.

“We believe that University High has the capacity to recruit more diverse students and their families to this campus so that they feel that UTC is their first choice for higher education.”

“These students are UTC students. They have a UTC ID and access to all the resources on our campus that help support our students. We want our University High students to feel like UTC students in every sense of the word.”

Principal Arielle Garcia Hayes welcomes students on the first day of the new high school.
Principal Arielle Garcia Hayes welcomes students on the first day of the new high school.

After two years in the program, University High students will have earned 14 to 20 college credit hours. Courses prepare students for future UTC classes while meeting high school graduation requirements.

The next class of high school juniors will arrive at UTC in fall 2024, with the campus supporting more than 100 students at that time.

“We are focused on students as their advisors instead of their teachers,” says University High Principal Arielle Garcia Hayes. “The reason kids chose University High is to do learning differently, to do teaching differently, to do education differently—which is why the teachers chose it, too. How can we do education differently and really support our students who may not have seen themselves in this space or walking on this campus—or any campus, for that matter?

“Our goal is to navigate what that looks like, to finish your high school career while also beginning your college career.”

Hayes leads a University High faculty contingent comprised of Eryn Queen (counselor advisor, Spanish), Kate Knox (English), Emily McDonald (math), Juney Shober (science) and 2014 UTC alumna Catie Sanhueza (social studies)—who all are now based on UTC’s campus.

Learning occurs in three campus classrooms in Lupton Hall and one in Hunter Hall.

“University High is built on this idea of interest-based learning,” Hayes says. “Not only will we provide them with their core content areas, but a lot of that learning will come through campus experiences.

“With UTC being our base—and all of the colleges and majors the University offers—it’s literally at the students’ fingertips.”

This interest-based learning is the core of one of the program’s learning experiences known as Focus Fridays, in which students participate in different segments of UTC academic life.

For instance, early in the fall semester, they visited the Gary W. Rollins College of Business to participate in a “Shark Tank” activity and toured the studio of WUTC-FM, Chattanooga’s National Public Radio station.

Morgan Wyatt, a University High junior, participates in an athletic training program as part of Focus Friday.
Morgan Wyatt, a University High junior, participates in an athletic training program as part of Focus Friday.

In Wyatt’s case, a Focus Friday excursion to learn from UTC athletic training program graduate students and faculty might have launched a career.

“I learned how to wrap a wrist. I learned how to properly stretch someone out because, a lot of the time, athletic trainers will have to go out onto the field. I learned how to assess someone for a concussion, how to secure someone on a spine board, how to wrap a wrist, ankle or a shoulder, how to make a sling,” she says.

“For the last couple of years, I thought I wanted to be a physical therapist, but once I saw what athletic trainers do, I was like, ‘This is my thing.’”

Athletic Training Program Director Shellie Acocello says introducing the high school students to the world of athletic trainers was an excellent community engagement opportunity—especially for her graduate students, who ran the stations and led demonstrations.

“I think they probably gained a new appreciation for what it’s like to teach someone else to do a skill for the first time and rethink how they learned the first time,” Acocello says. “We have a pretty diverse group of students from Tennessee and all over the country and different races and genders. I think it was neat for the high school students to see that.”

Even before learning of the birth of University High, Wyatt says UTC was hopefully in the cards for her so she could stay close to her family. Still, the early access to a college experience has been “everything I imagined and more because of the support of everyone around us and the resources we have.

“We can go anywhere we want on campus to get help with anything we need.”

Can she envision herself in the graduate athletic training program if all goes well?

“Absolutely,” she says.

University High

To be eligible for enrollment in University High, current sophomores must be zoned for the Hamilton County school district and have a 3.0 on a 4.0 GPA scale. They also must submit two letters of recommendation, one from a teacher, principal or school counselor. The second letter can also be from a Hamilton County school district employee or a community leader who can speak to the student’s habits, skills and traits that show the student’s ability to be successful in the program. Applicants will be interviewed by University High leaders as part of the consideration process.