Update: Ronni Chandler retires with legacy of changed lives

Sandra ClarkDowntown, Our Town Youth

Update: We erred in reporting that Project GRAD will transition to United Way. Community Schools will transition to United Way in July, but Project GRAD will remain with the Knox Education Foundation. We should get some good information tonight (6/22/23) as school board member Dr. John Butler convenes a public meeting at 6 p.m. at Payne Avenue Baptist Church, 2714 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. Topics will include Region 5 strategic plan, Project GRAAD, Community Schools and the 865 Academies.

Ronni Chandler has worked at Project GRAD since its inception in November 2001. Previously, she worked for Pellissippi State Community College (1978-2001) in recruitment and student support.

Now, she is retiring as executive director of GRAD and the program will transition to United Way in July 2023. She plans to work part-time at Johnson University as a “persistence coach.”

Chandler’s education journey started with graduation from Austin-East High School, an associate degree at Pellissippi State, a bachelor’s in organizational management from Tusculum and a second master’s in ethics and leadership from Johnson.

“Look, I didn’t finish this (most recent) degree until last year. It’s a Saturday program, accelerated, and very hard to finish. I’m perfect to be a persistence coach,” she says.

And that’s the short story of Ronni Chandler.

In 2018, GRAD supporters massed at the school board to prevent the program from being abolished. And now it’s going away, which could be a good thing or bad. United Way is apparently taking over the community-school component of rural and inner-city schools as well. This is another story for another day.

What is GRAD: The concept of Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams) is to support students K-16 to graduate from high school with the promise of a scholarship to college. Chandler said more than 35,000 unduplicated children have been served. When one googles the name, the search turns up multiple substance-free graduation night lock-ins. That is not this.

Former Gov. Bill Haslam was an early booster of the program, raising and spending money to fulfill the dreams. It started before Tennessee Achieves created tuition-free community college pathways for most students. It was started by idealistic people who wanted to break the cycle of family poverty and hopelessness.

Thank you, contributors. GRAD has worked.

Here are some of the employed people who came through the program (hum softly as we omit people who will phone tomorrow):

  • President of Knoxville NAACP – the Rev. Sam Brown
  • Knoxville Area Urban League Education Director – Carly Hammond
  • TN Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition Regional Leader – Ana Gutierrez
  • Beck Cultural Center Executive staff assistant – Kwanbe Bullard
  • KCS Admin & Teachers:
  •             A-E – Melody Hawkins/865 Freshman Academy asst admin
  •       A-E – Mahongony Chambers/ math teacher
  •             Fulton – Kensey Zimmerman/Fulton 865 Academy coach
  •       Fulton – Tiffany Winstead Nelson/special education teacher
  •             Whittle Springs – Nicolas Blair/social studies Teacher
  •             Hardin Valley – Ryan McDonough/assistant principal
  • Delta Airlines Flight Attendant – Charlise Holland
  • Dental Hygienist – Tabatha Shell
  • Realtor – Lyndeidra Rice-Tolbert
  • Teaching English in Japan – Timothy Anderso
  • Pharmacists – Dr. Molly Wright
      • Dr. Wynton Phillips
      • Physicians – Dr. Bart Satterfield- Physical Therapist
      • Dr. Warren Phillip – Physical Therapist
      • Dr. Damon Izaac Lawson
  • Dentist – Dr. Tiara Thompson
  • Family Nurse Practitioner – Kanea Roebuck
  • Nurses – Asia White, RN
  •        Traniece Pennington, RN
  • Vegan Restaurant Owner – Mariah Ragland
  • Stylist/Owner – Taylor Deathridge/Taylor Styles Beauty Loft
  • AdviseTN Advisor – Deidre Hooker
  • Aveda instructor and spa lead – Katoia Lee
  • HVAC – William Mathis
  • Electrician – Sabastian Pedro
  • Mental health professionals –
    • Jasmine Siler/McNabb-Central HS
    • Kendra Daily – Cherokee Health
    • Philip Tucker – Shade Tree Therapy (owner and therapist)
    • Lawyers – Jenea’ Anderson
  •  Desmond Humphrey
  •  Michael Ballew
  •  Molly Hardin
  • Master Fire Fighter/KFD – Anthony McAlister
  • Police Officer/KPD – Officer DionDre Jackson
  • Project GRAD –
  • GRAD Fulton coordinator/Nancy Gonzalez Rodriguez
  • GRAD Board
  •                    A-E GRAD Alum – the Rev. Sam Brown
  •                    Fulton GRAD Alum – Ana Gutierrez

A couple of other GRAD alumni get their own paragraph:

Gabriel Figueroa, communications coordinator UTK Knoxville Diversity and Engagement. Ronni Chandler says: We did the Celebration Dinner virtually in 2021 https://youtu.be/xD0_e5NAcwQ because of pandemic. GRAD alum Gabriel Figueroa recorded and edited that production. Gabe went through all GRAD feeder schools – Beaumont, Vine, AE and is a graduate of Pellissippi State, then UTK and works for UTK.

Dr. Cheri Green/Fulton graduate) She produced this blog: https://projectgradknoxville.org/2023/01/where-are-they-now-a-grad-alumni-focus-on-dr-cheri-green/print)


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