Unite Inc. expanding services with $2.1 million grant

Published 12:30 pm Saturday, June 15, 2024

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Unite, Inc., a local educational non–profit, announced on Thursday, that they had received $2.1 million as a part of the Rural Postsecondary and Economic Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. 

The funding will go to expand programming for the students of the county’s High Schools, including Lanett, LaFayette and Valley High School. According to a UNITE Inc. press release, the grant is specifically going to programs that, “address the unique challenges faced by rural students and communities.” While the organization serves Lee County as well, this grant will go to programs and initiatives in Chambers County exclusively. 

Dr. Travis Smith, the founder and Executive Director of UNITE, Inc., said the organization did not originally get the grant when applying in April of 2023. 

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“It’s always hard when you receive nos, but we never let a no stop us. We continue to apply for the grants, continue to offer our services, and we received an email yesterday that it was awarded.”

To be considered for the grant the organization had to create a budget for the four-year funding period. Much of the $2.1 million will go to expanding the organization’s college preparatory program. 

The program includes workshops, seminars, peer mentoring and tutoring. The students are given ACT prep instruction as well as tutoring. UNITE Inc. hosts tours to HBCUs for the program’s students. 

“We consider ourselves a 360 organization when it comes to college preparation. So we’re going to do everything from career exploration until you step foot on campus in orientation,” said Smith.

According to a UNITE Inc. press release, “Graduating high school seniors have collectively secured $43 million in scholarships, enabling them to pursue their educational goals. Additionally, 59 students have completed the program, boasting a 100% high school graduation rate. Participants have, on average, improved their ACT scores by approximately four points, enhancing their college admission prospects.”

Going forward, the college prep program is looking at a large expansion. 

Smith said the grant will allow the organization to expand its services from 55 students, which it currently serves, to around 600 in the four years of funding.

“We want to work with our local students, rural students, to connect them to HBCUs and to connect our HBCU students to opportunities,” Smith said.

The funding will allow UNITE Inc. to hire three full-time staff members to coordinate and expand outreach and instruction. Smith said they will also be supplementing salaries for Chambers County High School teachers who work with the programs. 

“Our goal is to identify between one and two teachers that want to work with us because we believe that you know the teachers are there in the school, and they have the opportunity they know the students,” Smith said.

Each school will also be getting free ACT prep courses with a certified prep instructor. Funds will be set aside to pay for the actual ACT test the students take as well. 

The college tour for those students will now be funded as well. In the past, the students had to raise around $1000 each for tours to HBCUs. However, fundraising will still happen due to the parameters of the grant.

Aside from the ACT and tours, Smith said they will be starting summer camps. The first will be a week-long college exploration camp, staffed by the college students that went through the program. 

“So we’re going to hire our current college students to work with the summer camps. So they’ll be camp counselors, which, again, we’re trying to keep the money in the community,” Smith said.

The second camp will also be a week-long camp at Southern Union State Community College in Wadley. The camp will allow the kids to get a mini college experience as well as go on field trips to historical and cultural sites. Both camps will include breakfast and lunch.

Smith said the Lanett City School System has agreed to partner with the program. Smith and his group will be in the schools as early as November, to talk with students and parents about the program and identify Lanett teachers to give supplemental education. 

He also said that the Chamber’s County School System is not currently partnering with UNITE Inc.. 

“We have to follow those rules and procedures, and we have to be accountable for those things,” said Dr. Casey Chambley, CCSD Superintendent.

While Chambley said he did not personally see proposals for partnership from the organization, if proposed he said there are reasons it would not work. 

“There are certain accounting procedures and policies that are very strict for us as a state entity that we have to follow. And when you’re dealing with money and large amounts of money, and how that money is being distributed and used…there are things that have to be followed,” Chambley said. 

He added, “Different organizations that we partner with, align with our vision and align with what we’re trying to do. Unite does not align with the vision of the CCSD. 

Chambley said that UNITE and Smith have always been advocates for kids, but that the school district’s vision is to, “Work every day to create champions in and out of the classroom and in everything that we do, for all kids.”

Smith said they will continue to work with students from the Chambers County School District outside of the school. He added he is hopeful that the next administration for CCSD, which will take office in January, will consider a partnership.

For students interested in the program, it is open to all high school students in Chambers County who meet certain criteria, including low-income status. First-generation college students are also prioritized. Recruiting will begin soon.

“You know we’ve been we’ve been doing this work since 2013 in Chambers County…There’s nothing or nobody that is going to stop us from serving our students,” Smith said.