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UT Collaboration Empowers Community Schools

When the school day ends at Knoxville’s Pond Gap Elementary, the University-Assisted Community School day begins.

A hundred students take part in art, music, and physical education. Some till and weed the community garden, often working with UT agriculture students and picking vegetables to take home. Some are tutored by volunteers from UT’s master’s in education program. At 6:00 p.m., Pond Gap students and parents sit down for a free “community” dinner, after which UT volunteers offer the children programs in sports, piano, choir, Mandarin, French, and science.

Community schools are the brainchild of Bob Kronick, a professor of educational psychology and counseling in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. The real answer, he thought, is to catch at-risk young people before they get into trouble.

In 2009, UT Knoxville alumnus Randy Boyd and his wife, Jenny, became intrigued by Kronick’s community school concept. The founder, chairman, and CEO of Radio Systems/PetSafe, Randy now serves as Governor Haslam’s commissioner of economic and community development. He became acquainted with the needs of at-risk communities as chairman of Knox Achieves, a program that provides community college tuition to Knox County students.

"This is one of the ways we at UT will make it to the Top 25, by teaching the value of community involvement and engagement and making it a part of everyone’s higher education." —Bob Kronick

“Randy and I met four or five times,” says Kronick. “He bought into it. He said, ‘We’ll fund you for three years and see how it works.’ We’re at six years and counting. He is generous not just with his money but with his time,” says Kronick. “It’s like a family to him. He’s a big brother to the kids. For Thanksgiving, Randy dresses up as a pilgrim and provides one hundred turkeys to families that wouldn’t otherwise be eating.” The Community School concept has taken root at twelve Knox County schools, and UT is adding Inskip Elementary as another University–Assisted Community School, made possible by the generosity of donors like Boyd.

"Randy comes to school events and interacts with the kids. He is truly genuine in wanting to impact the world." —Shelly McGill

“The UT partnership is a great opportunity for us,” adds Pond Gap Principal Shelly McGill. “The kids get to do things they wouldn’t get to do, like Science Saturdays, with UT students coming in and working with the Robotics team and the French Club. We’re adding new programs for next year in technology. We’re really ramping it up.”

Students volunteers at Pond Gap come from every college on the UT campus as well as South College and Pellissippi State. Education master’s students serve as tutors. “Ag students help with the garden and use it as a teaching device,” says Kronick. “Nursing students assist with health issues. Athletes help with sports. A law school professor taught a course in street law, which our students are very interested in and know something about.”

“Randy uses an expression, ‘We’ve got to move the needle,’ says Kronick. “Well, we’re moving it. School attendance is up from 25 percent to 90 percent. Our math scores are OK. Our reading scores, still bad. But that’s a big challenge that our student volunteers are helping us address. Not long ago, Randy said, “This is the best investment I’ve ever made.”


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