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Conservation work helps local teens to beat the odds

Conservation work helps local teens to beat the odds

Three years ago, the State of the Chattanooga Region Report: Education (SOCRR Education Report) clarified that many of our area’s schools were facing significant challenges, with high levels of suspension rates and widening achievement gaps.

The report noted that “Lifelong earnings are highly correlated with educational attainment. Increasingly, educational attainment is related to family stability, lower rates of crime and incarceration, lower rates of teen pregnancy and healthier lifestyles.”

In addition, it clarified that many Chattanooga businesses are finding it difficult to find qualified employees from within our region.

And while many schools in the Chattanooga region lack high levels of academic success to link future employment and the success of their students, some with graduation rates at less than 75%, one school, and one program, is standing out.

Working together, under the guidance of Robyn Carlton, CEO, Lookout Mountain Conservancy and The Howard School have forged a partnership over the past five years that is resulting in students enrolled in the program, beating the odds.

“It’s not uncommon for our interns to go from almost failing in high school to graduating near the top of their class,” noted Ms. Carlton, continuing, “These are great kids, with big hearts and big dreams. They want to succeed and make a positive difference—we are just here to give them the boost they need to make that possible. If you think about it, conservation and taking care of the mountain and these students is really like a team sport: we are all in this together.”

Land Conservation as a Tool for Change

Using land conservation as a tool to inspire greater academic success, a strong work ethic, and greater teamwork and social skills, participants in Lookout Mountain Conservancy’s Intern and Leadership Program have achieved 100% graduation rate from The Howard School, where graduation rates hover around 63%.

“This is an intensive, demanding, and challenging program,” noted Ms. Carlton, continuing, “These young men and women work hard up on the Mountain restoring wildlife habitat and building trails while learning what it’s like to be a young leader and beat the odds around you.  They work hard at school and are looked up to by their peers.”

Partnerships are key to success

The program teams up with other leaders in the Chattanooga community including the Rotaracts, the young professional service arm of the Rotary. The Rotaracts come out to the Mountain and volunteer their time to work side-by-side with The Howard School interns, pulling out vines, raking trails, hauling brush—while getting to know the interns and understanding their challenges and dreams.

The Rotaracts also help mentor the interns, creating connections with other professionals in the Chattanooga community.  

Ms. Carlton notes that “Some of the interns are interested in going on to become lawyers, teachers, and pediatric doctors,” as a result of their life experiences and the partnership with the Rotaracts.

For the majority of the students in the program, graduating from high school and going to college, or another form of advanced training, is a big deal—for many they will be the first member of their family to do so. The Conservancy supports them through the critical steps to ensure their college application processes are met.

Increasing demand, funding needed

The SOCRR Education Report noted that it can take as much as $25,000 per year to incarcerate someone. The report also notes that proactively breaking the cycle of poverty with educational obtainment is a more effective route for taxpayers.

Ms. Carlton explains that these students want other options, and the Intern and Leadership Program’s $11,500/student is money much better spent; Lookout Mountain Conservancy is a nonprofit that depends on charitable donations and grants to run the program.

The program is now obtaining national recognition as well, most recently as the featured program at the national land conservation conference in Minneapolis, Wisconsin. Ms. Carlton is quick to recognize the leadership and teachers of The Howard School as a big part of the program’s success, noting that they value this creative approach as an opportunity for their school and the students.

More students would like to become part of the program which runs year-round, provides a modest hourly stipend for working on the Mountain, and involves additional academic and leadership coaching, including over school breaks and on Saturdays.

Ms. Carlton explained “the only thing holding us back from working with more students is the need to grow our staff. This is an intensive program that requires a diversity of skills and a long-term commitment to the land and our youth.”

She added “We hope to increase our community support to a point where we can double the students we mentor in the Internship Program, as well as serve other students at The Howard School. This is conservation changing lives—and these young people really can’t wait. Their future, and that of Chattanooga and the conservation and trail efforts up on Lookout Mountain, depends on our community’s support to inspire, and mentor these young men and women.”