There are many jewels in the crown of Rutherford County. One bright and shining star is The Robert And Janice McNair Educational Foundation, offering darn near incredible opportunities to students at Chase, East, and RS Central.
Monica Paris Lee has been at the helm of this farflung opportunity outlet for ten years; and she says, "There is almost no downside to this job."
After ten years in administering group homes for developmentally delayed adults and six years as a classroom teacher, the McNair job came open. Then assistant superintendent Dr. Janet Mason called her and urged her to apply.
"She just kept talking to keep me from saying no to the job," Lee remembers with a laugh. "She finally convinced me to just apply."
It is among the most unusual jobs imaginable. From her East High office, she is able to have encouraging contact with students, but also to direct the program at all three high schools and beyond.
The heart of the work is recruiting, training, and encouraging mentors who begin working with students in the seventh grade and take them through their senior year in high school.
A separate team of 25 mentors is working this year for the first time with college students who need the extra juice. 133 college freshmen are in the program.
The Rope Recipients, graduating seniors from the three large high schools in the county, do very well at staying in college and graduating. "Well above the national average," Lee said. But there is another group of college students who have a tougher time on four-year campuses. That group was told about the new college mentoring program and they signed up. Among the 25 mentors, especially among Chase and East graduates, is a group of former Rope Recipients.
"They are very grateful for what the McNairs did for them, and want a chance to pay back," Lee said.
Robert McNair, who died November 23 last year and his wife, Janice, had a vision 30 years ago of challenging Rutherford County high school students to go to college and giving them tools to help with that. Since then, hundreds of high school graduates have benefitted from the McNair scholarships and McNair mentoring. The financial benefits have run into tens of millions of dollars.
Lee credits that vision with why she loves her job.
One particularly inspiring story regards Shakira Jackson, a young man set to graduate college this December.
"Mr. McNair provided the peanut butter, the bread and the knife. All I had to do was make the sandwich," Jackson said of the foundation's help with his academic career.
"He finished his freshman year in high school with a .7 grade point average. He started getting serious about school and by his senior year had raised it to a 2.35. He applied to college and got in. He asked us for more help; and we helped him register for his classes. Now he is set to graduate," Lee said.
Just a few days ago he organized a school supply event on Hardin Road (see photo.) He collected school supplies and backpacks and gave them away to elementary students he hopes will follow in his footsteps.
Jackson's story is a tip on the iceberg of McNair impact on the lives of kids in the county. If reading here inspires thoughts of fireworks, the foundation recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with fireworks in the Owls' baseball park on McNair Drive.
Today the foundation publishes a brochure listing 25 different programs designed to inspire excellence in academic achievement. From mentors who offer advice, presence, and encouragement to students like Jackson, to specific fairs and visits to college campuses that show students the whats and hows of college life and their potential to be part of that life.
There is a specific program for eighth graders that sheds light on the power of money to touch their lives and make for more opportunities. Called, "The Reality Of Money," the program uses a financial simulation from The State Employees Credit Union to make eighth graders aware of the realities of how money works as they become wage earning, bill paying young adults.
Another program for seventh and eighth graders called, "Heart Of A Champion," provides team building and leadership training for football players and even takes them to visit college campuses. Imagine the impact. These youngsters might not yet be playing college ball, but McNair gives them a place to see from, a view of what might come.
Robert McNair played football at Cool Springs and the University of South Carolina.
He owned the Houston Texans.
"The thing Mr. McNair believed in most is the mentoring program," Lee said. Mentors meet with and encourage students to take rigorous courses, complete course work, and meet all requirements for post-high school graduation standards.
In addition to programs listed above, McNair provides a leadership trained high school student to meet with all eighth graders and prepare them for the challenges and good academic habits that will make their transition into high school easier.
McNair is not unique although it is stellar. College access programs exist across the nation, but, as Lee put it, "The McNairs were ahead of their time. They started this foundation 30 years ago. The college access movement is only about 20 years old."