KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The past few months after gun violence rocked the communities surrounding Austin-East Magnet High School, there has been a lot of talk about ways to keep young people engaged and off the streets. 

There are programs that are already doing just that and one successful program is expanding to help students improve their grades and make it to college.  

“Our catchphrase is excellence without excuses.” For more than 10 years, Laschinski Emerson has been chipping away at the excuses for students wanting to improve their grades and their future.

“A lot of kids think that, well I can go to a kind of a two-week prep real quick right before the test. But if you are not already strong in your vocab, your reading comprehension, and your math skills, you’re not going to do as well as you expect to do so it is really good to go to a prep that actually teaches the content,” said Emerson.

And that’s what they are doing at the S.M.A.R.T. Institute, a tutoring and mentoring program developed by her nonprofit, A1 Learning Connections. This September Emerson decided to add ACT prep to the program because she saw a need.

“So ACT is always been dear to my heart just because of the fact that I have heard so many stories. If this student could have made a higher score on ACT they would have had this opportunity or that opportunity and I had kind of reached out to other schools and had picked up some students from other schools within Knox County, and we had made such a positive impact.”

Most of the students in the prep course are from Austin-East’s football program. Tutors going over the subjects, teach, review, and giving strategies for ACT test-taking.  

“Yeah it gave me a lot of confidence because before I was worried that I wasn’t going to do so well because I hear about other people’s scores. But then I went and seen what we learned in ACT prep and I was pretty confident doing the test when we started,” says Austin-East student, Maurice Davis.

Davis scored a 20 on his first try. His teammate Zakoyous Houston also scoring a 20. Both teens singing the program’s praises.

“Like, for the freshmen, they get to take the ACT 8 times, which would be good for them. I wish I had joined [S.M.A.R.T. Institute] my freshman year but I am just glad that I finally got to be in the S.M.A.R.T. Institute,” said Houston.

Emerson says she can’t wait to see how the improvement expands.

“So, our success has been, we’ve had freshmen to make 20 or higher as the composite score, they have made in the high 20s in English and math and reading. We’ve had our sophomores or juniors and our seniors to actually make it in the 20s, and several of our seniors have improved their scores. So it’s working and the thing about it, what makes me so excited is that we just started in September.”

The S.M.A.R.T. Institute is ready to take on any student at Austin-East Magnet High School who wants to see their academic opportunities grow.

“I just see great, brighter things happening, I am pleased with what we did, just from the first test, and I just know it’s just going to get even better,” says Emerson.

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