GREENEVILLE –– Scott Niswonger thinks the better educated people are, the better quality of life everyone will have.
Now, 10 years after the creation of the foundation that bears his name, he has proven he truly believes that philosophy by funneling more than $30 million from his Greeneville-based Landair transportation business to fund more than 30 partnerships with schools across Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District.
Created in 2001, the Niswonger Foundation was a response to what Niswonger saw as a problem with the 1st District’s public education –– namely the fact that many area high school students earning 4.0 GPAs were only earning scores of 18 or 19 on the ACT, the exam required to enter most colleges in Tennessee. ACT scores ranges from 1 to 36.
That situation was unacceptable, especially to increase the quality of life for the region’s citizens through employment, health care and other cultural opportunities, Niswonger thought.
“Education is the underpinning of just about every problem or situation we know,” Niswonger said in a recent interview from the foundation’s headquarters near Tusculum College in Greeneville.
Niswonger investigated the low ACT sores and found schools were not able to provide enough advanced courses that would give the rigor necessary to get into a good college.
Improving ACT scores through rigorous programs was the first problem the foundation addressed. Soon the foundation began to offer teachers the opportunity to learn best practices from some of the best teachers around the country. In the summers, the foundation hosts a professional development symposium for teachers that is attended by about 800.
One of the foundation’s accomplishments that Niswonger is very proud of is the distance learning initiative that has connected 29 high schools across this region. Clinch Mountain High School students can now study German or Mandarin Chinese from a teacher in Unicoi County thanks to the $100,000 investment in distance-based learning equipment.
The money for the foundation to do all this comes from Landair. The model for the foundation’s funding is uncommon in that a for-profit company is financing the operation.
“To have a for-profit business set aside money for this is unique,” Niswonger said. “It’s a bit of a business approach to education where we’re trying to make the best out of the resources we have.”
Nancy Dishner, the foundation’s scholarships and leadership director, said an important part of the work of the Niswonger Foundation was in its sustainable philanthropy. The foundation seeks to start beneficial programs that will be assumed by schools after a few years. Many foundations only give money without a plan for continued, measurable results.
Linda Irwin, the foundation’s director of school partnerships, said her main objective is to give students a good knowledge base to get into a good university or secure a good job following high school graduation.
Irwin’s work at the foundation begins with responding to a need identified by a school or region within the 1st District. She then works with the system to determine a plan of action and a budget for accomplishing measurable goals.
“We don’t go in and tell people what to do,” Irwin said. “We go in and work with them to come up with solutions.”
During the first year of a collaborative project, the Niswonger Foundation does all the heavy lifting with regard to cash flow, but the second year more of it is shifted to the client.
“We’re giving them a three-year period to work this into their budget so it’s sustainable,” Irwin said.
To that end, the foundation has helped establish “pre-K programs, building homes in Johnson County and most everything in between,” Irwin said.
The foundation’s home construction project in Johnson County developed out of a discussion with the director of schools there, who said the county had a problem with high school dropouts and a lack of jobs in the county. The director suggested a building trade program. The foundation helped acquire 50 acres for high school students to construct homes. There are now four homes there and students who worked on the projects have the opportunity to get marketable skills, including becoming certified electricians and masons.
The foundation has also helped implement course credit recovery projects with area high schools and projects that keep students on track to graduate.
In August 2010, the foundation received a U.S. Department of Education i3 Investing in Innovation grant for more than $21 million. The grant will work with 29 high schools in 15 local systems to ensure students are ready to go to college or begin working upon graduation.
During the next five years it is estimated that through the grant and the foundation more than $25 million will be put toward the scholarship and leadership program.
While Irwin helps students to develop career skills, Dishner’s function is to help select Niswonger Scholars, the second component of the foundation.
She is interviewing 80 nominees for the next Scholars’ class, which will be selected by the foundation’s board.
There are 29 current Scholars and 39 alumni of the program.
The Scholars get to go to the college of their choice and receive housing, tuition and a meal plan for their campus. The students are then asked to get engaged with the campus and focus on studies. The Scholars are required to have at least 40 hours of community service on their campuses each semester. The students keep a journal to help reflect on how they have grown as citizens.
The Niswonger Foundation is arranged to find a select group of high school students who will make good future leaders, who will return to this region, Dishner said.
“They’re buying into a whole program and a whole idea of leadership development,” Dishner said.
About 24 percent of Tennesseeans have a college degree. In Northeast Tennessee that number is closer to 14 percent, Dishner said.
“So he’s trying to build a very sustainable education base and a sustainable leadership base to lead the region in the future,” Dishner said of Niswonger’s vision for the foundation and the education of this region’s youth.
Visit niswongerfoundation.org for more information on the Niswonger Foundation.