JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — An affinity with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s focus on workforce development and a digital model practically made for the pandemic have drawn Greeneville’s Niswonger Foundation and the state much closer together over the past four years.

Major evidence of that shows up in Lee’s proposed fiscal 2024 budget. It includes nearly $2.2 million in direct appropriations and roughly $8 million more for programs Niswonger now runs for the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE).

“If you hear Gov. Lee speak at any point, you’re going to hear about workforce development,” Niswonger CEO Nancy Dishner told News Channel 11 after Lee released his budget proposal. “You’re going to hear about the fact that we need to help families, we need to help individuals to be able to have jobs and to be able to support their families.”

Dishner said the foundation’s mission — “Creating opportunities for individual and community growth through education and other sustainable projects” — was already accomplishing Lee’s workforce development goals on a regional scale when Lee took office in early 2019.

Niswonger was also nearly completely grant and privately-funded at that time, doing its work mostly in 10 counties of Northeast Tennessee. And one of its key programs, which placed college and career advisors alongside public high school guidance counselors, was in danger of sunsetting.

Niswonger Foundation CEO Nancy Dishner speaks to News Channel 11 about state funding for the foundation. (WJHL photo)

NiswongerCare College and Career Advising had begun through a federal grant before transitioning to a private grant, and that grant was ending. The program supplements the work guidance counselors do helping students and families complete financial aid forms, helps with college applications and generally just helps kids and parents navigate a complex process.

“I knew that it was directly aligned with his – with the positions he was taking that had to do with rural opportunity,” Dishner said of Lee. “He was really interested in helping students to get on to post-secondary education, and understand about career paths.”

Lee saw enough value to pick up the program’s roughly $750,000 annual cost with state dollars starting in the fiscal 2020 budget that began in July 2019.

“That was really the beginning of a four-year partnership with the governor’s direct appropriations grants,” Dishner said. “We’ve been very fortunate to receive them for all four of those years.”

The support has expanded to cover another program, “Career Connect,” that operates in the Washington, Greene and Carter county and Greeneville city school districts.

“That is around helping those students who are probably least likely to go on to post-secondary unless they have some very special assistance,” Dishner said. The hands-on program stays with students through three years of high school.

Despite coming in with a low likelihood of post-secondary education, 89% of last year’s graduates are continuing their education, Dishner said. That’s not only much higher than the expected rate for the group, it’s also well above the 56% overall rate in Tennessee.

“They’re learning different parts and different skills leading up to even internships, shadowing experiences, hands-on experience learning how to weld. It is directed toward helping them to really have experience doing that while they’re getting their academic experience in high school.”

Dishner said the plan is to double the program’s reach if the governor’s appropriation passes.

Its final benefit to Niswonger relates to leveraging state funds to get much larger amounts of money from multimillion federal or private grants. Those often require matching funds. In fact, Niswonger is in the middle of two five-year, $8 million grants that each require a 10% match over that period — $1.6 million between them.

“That’s a lot of money for a private foundation to come up with,” Dishner said. “If you think about the return on investment, that’s pretty fantastic, so … we presented that to the governor and his team as a what if — ‘what if an organization goes after a really big grant that is going to be capacity building for our state, and we need a match for that?'”

Lee’s budget proposes a $400,000 direct appropriation for grant matching funds. Dishner said Niswonger will seek “big grants” in the coming year.

“We’re doing that based on the fact that Tennessee is supporting us and undergirding that with some assistance, and that to me is an incredible investment on the part of our state,” she said.

Opportunity from crisis

The Lee administration appears to be enamored with the Niswonger Foundation for other reasons as well at this point. When federal “ESSER” funds came down to states to help them combat the COVID pandemic’s effect on K-12 education, Niswonger had a well-established program that fit ESSER goals well.

A graphic from the Niswonger Foundation’s annual report shows how its reach has grown over the past several years to cover all of Tennessee’s 95 counties. The foundation stands to receive more than $10 million of state funding for its work in next year’s budget. (Niswonger Foundation)

The “Niswonger Online” program included a focus on enabling small rural districts to offer students Advanced Placement courses, which can net a student who passes the AP Exam free college credits.

TDOE believed that type of model could benefit districts statewide and asked Niswonger if they’d like to apply for a contract to expand it. They did and they got it, launching “AP Access for All.”

“We had five AP courses at the time, I think we’ve now grown that to 17 and we’ll be adding two more this fall,” Dishner said.

“With every crisis comes opportunity, unfortunately, and fortunately. We’ve been able to build that and to make it an extremely quality program.”

She said 2,100 students are taking AP courses through the program this term, and 600 teachers got employee training about AP instruction last year.

“That’s not only building capacity to help teach in our online program, but there we also see high schools establishing on-ground programs because they now have trained teachers,” Dishner said.

Now those ESSER funds are going away, but Lee has recommended using around $4.5 million in state TDOE funds to continue it.

He’s done the same with Tennessee AllCorps, a “high-dosage, low-ratio” tutoring program for kids through eighth grade. That ESSER-funded program was modeled on Niswonger’s “Project On Track.”

The program cost about $4 million last year, and Lee has recommended the state take over the cost with ESSER funds drying up.

“High dosage tutoring is seen as the most effective means of really helping a student who is struggling in a particular subject,” Dishner said. “So the state’s allowed us now to expand that to math as well as literacy.”

A native of small-town Erwin, Dishner taught public school for about a decade before working in the College of Education at East Tennessee State University for a couple more decades. She’s spent her “retirement” running Niswonger and said seeing it grow and multiply its impact is gratifying.

“We went through a very challenging time in the last three years in education, but with that challenge came resources we couldn’t have imagined,” she said.

The foundation was well-placed to take advantage with its experience handling large grants and innovating in online platforms.

“It was easy for us then to think about really looking at this opportunity as a chance to bring that tremendous amount of programming and support for the students in our region and state, so we’re very grateful to have the chance to do that.”