Pell grant pilot to help more high schoolers focus on career

Northeast State Community College welding instructor John Rosenbalm discusses a finer point of the craft with Sullivan Central High School senior Holden Light. Photo by Jeff Keeling

Northeast State Community College welding instructor John Rosenbalm discusses a finer point of the craft with Sullivan Central High School senior Holden Light. Photo by Jeff Keeling

By Jeff Keeling

In late May, Northeast State Community College announced it was one of 44 higher education institutions selected for a U.S. Department of Education pilot program allowing income-eligible high school students to apply for Federal Pell grants to pay for certain dual enrollment courses. This fall, eligible students in area “career academies” who are gaining college credit at Northeast are filling out FAFSA forms, and a number are expected to qualify for and receive Pell grant funding. In the meantime, the career academy concept, which has seen some high school students gain more than 30 hours of college credit along with professional career certifications, has grown from a handful of students in 2014 to more than 100 this fall. 

Holden Light lays down a weld bead, shuts off his torch and flips up his helmet to catch the watchful eye of John Rosenbalm. The mustachioed Northeast State Community College instructor with the kindly glint in his eyes and nearly four decades of welding experience offers a few tips to his student.

If Light looks young to be taking a college class, it’s because he is. The Sullivan Central High School senior is among a small cadre of students in Central’s “career academy.” Last May, some of his former Northeast classmates proudly accepted professional certificates during Northeast’s graduation ceremonies – more than a week before they graduated from Central. Light plans to follow in their footsteps, probably to pursue at least an associate’s degree in welding before deciding on further college or career plans. The associate’s won’t take him long, as the career academy will see him finish high school as a nationally recognized, combination certified welder with 27 hours of college credit.

With guys like Rosenbalm aging out of high-skilled jobs at a steady rate, and new advanced manufacturing employers seeking strong skilled labor forces as they decide where to set up shop, career academies linked to Northeast State are growing fast. The sense that that’s a good thing seems universal among leaders in high school Career Technical Education (CTE), higher education and business – not to mention the increasing numbers of students getting a jump start on their education and careers.

“Every student in the building, I’m convinced, wants to learn something,” says Bo Shadden, who heads up Career Technical Education (CTE) at the Sullivan County Schools. “What we have to do is find what they want to learn and connect it to what we’re trying to teach. When you connect those two it’s very powerful learning.”

Shadden was present three years ago when the academy effort began taking shape, “on a dry erase board in one of our conference rooms. We just said, ‘can we do this?’”

Yes, they could – now who’s going to pay for it?

The stars have aligned since that day around the white board. Sullivan East High added a CNC/machine tooling career academy a couple of years ago. New ones have sprung up within the last year covering a variety of disciplines, from entertainment technology to drafting, with participation by additional school districts within the five-county area served by Northeast State. It’s required adaptation by all parties, Shadden says.

“We couldn’t ask for a better partner (than Northeast). We’ve had to go through TBR to make some changes, we’ve had to change some policies and procedures on Sullivan County’s end and kind of tweak the way things are done, but I think this is where education needs to go.

“It’s a great time to be in the technical world – there’s some really great opportunity for young people in these areas and I think our society’s realizing that. An associate’s degree or certification and you’re ready to go to work, and that’s what we want. We want people to have a successful career, raise their family and be able to be provide as needed.”

That growth has brought with it the challenge of how to pay for these promising students’ early forays into college work. Tennessee Promise doesn’t extend, yet anyway, to dual enrolled high schoolers. And some of the students who would benefit most from a head start on college come from families for whom shelling out tuition or fee money would be a significant obstacle. Up until now, a combination of funds from private businesses and Sullivan County’s “Educate and Grow” financial aid program have covered the gaps, but those sources can only do so much – and aren’t as available in Johnson, Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties.

Enter Northeast State’s Chelsea Rose, who has helped guide the career academy program since its inception. When the federal government sent out a notice about the Pell opportunity, it found its way to her desk via both Northeast’s director of grant development and the school’s VP of workforce development.

“We instantly knew that it was something that we wanted to apply for,” Rose says. “I think with this additional funding source, we’ll be able to expand in these other school systems and offer this to more students in the region.”

Through its experiment, the Department of Education hopes to learn about the impact of providing earlier access to financial aid on low-income students’ college access, participation, and success. Northeast State President Dr. Janice Gilliam calls the addition of the Pell grant pilot “a great shot in the arm” for the school’s efforts. She also believes that with attitudes about technical education changing nationally, availability of Pell grants for high schoolers to pursue focused college coursework could become standard.


2016 Sullivan East High School graduates Kyler Harley, left, and Jacob Gourley earned 33 hours of CNC/Machine tooling college credit while still in high school. Photo by Carson Waugh

Well worth it

One of Light’s former fellow students who earned his certificate prior to high school graduation last year exemplifies the varied elements that make the program great, according to Shadden, Gilliam and Central’s CTE director Justin Calhoun. His name is Christian Lee, and he’s back at Northeast this fall. But before he discovered his passion for welding, he was a bit adrift, Calhoun remembers.

A former English teacher, Calhoun taught Lee when he was a junior. “We had some what I call ‘data conversations,’” Calhoun says. “We looked at his test scores over time and what he was projected to do in my English class on his end of course standardized test. He shared some things with me about his educational career, and he said, ‘you know, I haven’t really done as well as I could have,’ and he kind of had a hard time coming to school sometimes.”

“He said, ‘I’ve got it together, I know what I want to do and I’m going to do well in here, and I’m really looking forward to taking that test to show you what I can do. And I thought, ‘wow,’ what an attitude with this kid.

“He’s a prime example of somebody that didn’t just learn how to weld, but they learned what it took to be a business-minded person and to carry that business mentality into the classroom and into all other parts of their lives,” Calhoun says.

The story isn’t an anomaly. Gilliam says she received an email from a career academy student’s parents who said it had changed their son’s life. Shadden says that because employers need the skilled workers and that students have shown they can mature quickly when they find a passion, it’s imperative that society figures out a way to pay for career-focused dual enrollment.

“Catching people early is important. I think by their junior year they’re ready for us to challenge them with something different, and I think that’s what these cohorts do.

“I like the two years free after high school, but I really think we need to back some of that money down. Catch these students early, get them started and get them moving through the channels a little sooner. They’re ready, and never do I want the money part to be a barrier for any of our students to not have this opportunity.”

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