UPDATE: Due to complications caused by the pandemic, the TN Promise application deadline has been extended to Dec. 1.

School leaders in Tennessee continue to find innovative ways to navigate the challenges presented by COVID-19. This is particularly true when it comes to ensuring that high school seniors submit their Tennessee Promise applications by the statewide November 2 deadline. Across the state, applications are down 20 percent this fall, leading to concerns about a possible decline in postsecondary enrollment for the Class of 2021.

Recently, Dr. Brian Mells, principal of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ (MNPS) Whites Creek High School, shared his school’s strategies for supporting seniors and driving submission of Tennessee Promise applications. Like many large districts across the country, MNPS started this school year using virtual instruction. While some elementary students have now returned to in-person instruction, MNPS high school students will continue to use the virtual model until at least January.

This new model for teaching and learning led to an initial adjustment period for teachers and staff at Whites Creek High School. Eventually, Whites Creek adjusted to the challenges of virtual learning and “We found a groove,” Mells said. “The first challenge we had from the very beginning was the fact that we were doing this virtually. It was a struggle figuring out what to do.”

In particular, the lack of opportunities for students and staff to interact in person meant that past strategies for driving the submission of Tennessee Promise applications needed to be revised. The school has used three key strategies to support students around completing their Tennessee Promise applications.

First, the staff started working with students on applications early in the school year instead of waiting until later in the fall. The school held a Tennessee Promise “Blitz Week” that coincided with Tennessee’s College Application and Exploration Week at the end of September in order to share with students the importance of Tennessee Promise and give them a chance to complete the application during their regular class periods.

Second, Whites Creek staff continues to leverage a variety of communication channels to stay connected with students and their families. In addition to pushing out regular announcements through emails, automated phone calls and posts on the school’s learning management platform, staff also continue to make individual calls to students who have yet to complete their Promise application. Socially distanced drive-through events, including a Back-to-School Night and ice cream social, along with virtual town hall meetings for the senior class, have also been a part of Whites Creek’s strategy for staying connected and celebrating their students.

Third, staff have used incentives to motivate and celebrate the efforts of students. Whites Creek High School receives additional resources through GEAR UP Tennessee, a federally funded college access program. These resources have allowed the staff to purchase small incentives, such as gift cards, to reward students for submitting Promise applications.

Whites Creek High School’s approach has yielded positive results. Currently, 70 percent of their seniors have submitted Promise applications, one of the highest rates among high schools in MNPS.

As the application deadline approaches, Mells is looking forward to seeing the school’s number continue to increase so that his students will have the opportunities and resources needed to “Rise up and be great.”

Dr. Richard Bailey is SCORE’s director of strategic practice and data.