A half-dozen kids flip and tumble on gym mats in the basement of Pond Gap Elementary School. One after-school teacher, a UT staff member who is a part of what the school’s administration calls Shift Two, helps a boy balance on a ball like a circus performer. In the background, others practice rolling across the room on wooden spools without falling.
Circus class is one of dozens of activities organized by UT staff and students who spend every afternoon during the school year at Pond Gap and Inskip Elementary Schools as part of the University-Assisted Community Schools initiative.
Founded by Bob Kronick, a professor of educational psychology and counseling, and business leader and UT System President Randy Boyd, UACS launched in 2010. Now, it annually provides Pond Gap and Inskip students with an estimated 170 hours of tutoring and another 170 hours of enrichment programs ranging from Harry Potter–themed book clubs to vegetable gardening.
“Sometimes you go volunteer at a place, and you feel like you’re just standing there,” said Margaret Murr, a senior audiology and speech pathology student from Farragut, Tennessee. “Here there’s always someone to guide you. It can be organized chaos. But it also feels like a family.”
Murr was introduced to UACS as a member of the 1794 Scholars Program, one of several UT programs that place volunteers with Pond Gap and Inskip every semester. The Haslam Scholars Program, for example, sends 30 students every year to both schools, with a minimum of 15 required service hours a semester. The scholars have started some of the initiative’s most popular after-school clubs, including Lego League, Dungeons and Dragons, and Science Saturdays.
Professor of Nuclear Engineering Jamie Coble—who earned a bachelor’s degree (’05), two master’s degrees (’06, ’09), and a doctorate (’10) at UT before joining the faculty in 2013—coordinates the department’s UACS volunteers, who teach their young students about nuclear power through books like Marie’s Electric Adventure.
Coble has experienced for herself the difference that volunteering in the community makes. As an undergrad, she volunteered in a local school as part of a class she took with Kronick. In graduate school, she served as a volunteer coordinator for Sarah Moore Green Elementary School, where she also ran the Science Club. She once organized a Guinness Book of World Records attempt for the most Jell-O eaten using chopsticks.
“It was fun—and a huge mess,” Coble says. “Nuclear engineers cannot go out in the community and build a nuclear reactor. It was how we gave back as Volunteers.”
The impact of UACS and other UT volunteer efforts in local schools has been substantial. During the 2019–20 academic year, students participating in UACS activities at Pond Gap and Inskip were much less likely to be chronically absent, suspended, and had fewer behavioral referrals compared to other students. They also performed better in math and reading over time.
But one of the biggest impacts has been relational.
“The fact that somebody else, a college student, cares about their success—that is huge,” says Trina Bruns, principal of Pond Gap Elementary.
And it’s not only elementary school students who benefit from the UACS after-school programs. For Murr, the impact goes both ways.
“I was naïve about how the world worked when I first came to UT,” Murr says. “I was naïve about social problems. The Volunteer experience and getting involved in service–learning really expanded my world view. It’s shown me the true value of education.”