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KIPP charter network partners with MTSU to give under-represented students a shot at college

Seventh-grade students at KIPP Academy Nashville pose with (from left) School Leader Laura Miguez Howarth, KIPP Nashville Executive Director Randy Dowell, MTSU President Sidney McPhee and MTSU student Deyauna Cook.
Seventh-grade students at KIPP Academy Nashville pose with (from left) School Leader Laura Miguez Howarth, KIPP Nashville Executive Director Randy Dowell, MTSU President Sidney McPhee and MTSU student Deyauna Cook.
Grace Tatter

Even high-performing low-income students are less likely to go to college than their middling affluent peers.

Addressing that imbalance is the goal of a partnership announced Tuesday by leaders of Middle Tennessee State University and KIPP, a national charter network serving mostly low-income students in Nashville and Memphis.

Beginning this school year, MTSU will seek to recruit and enroll 10 qualified KIPP Nashville and Memphis alumni annually to Tennessee’s largest undergraduate university. The Murfreesboro school also will help the students navigate the complex world of higher education, including obtaining financial aid and building a support network for success.

Low-income students lag behind their more affluent peers in college attainment for myriad reasons. In some cases, they went to struggling schools and aren’t prepared. But often, they simply lack the resources and support to get there. It’s a problem that Tennessee must overcome to reach the state’s ambitious goal of getting 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2025.

“The reality is that less than 10 percent of students from low-income communities earn college degrees,” said Emily Blatter, who directs KIPP’s support program for Nashville alumni attending college. Having MTSU as a partner is critical, she said, because “we can’t do it alone.”

The university is the 85th nationwide to enter a partnership with KIPP, which was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston. The network is renowned for academics results, although critics say its performance is inflated through extra resources from philanthropists and a selective student body.

University logos adorn the hallway of KIPP Academy Nashville.
University logos adorn the hallway of KIPP Academy Nashville.
Grace Tatter

The focus on college starts early at KIPP, where walls of middle school classrooms are decorated with posters from schools that students can hope to attend with their current GPA. (According to the posters, students with a GPA of 3.0-3.49 are on track for MTSU.).

KIPP’s homeroom classes also are named for the lead teacher’s alma mater. In a surprise announcement, MTSU President Sidney McPhee said he’ll mentor seventh-grade students in the homeroom named for his university at KIPP Academy Nashville, where Tuesday’s partnership was announced. He said that will entail pizza parties, MTSU basketball games, and check-ins about their grades. He noted that research shows that mentor relationships also help students reach and complete college.

“It makes a difference when there’s someone you can trust and call on,” McPhee said.

KIPP operates four schools in Nashville and eight in Memphis.

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