KNOXVILLE (WATE) – An after school program is changing the lives of teenagers in East Knoxville. It’s a program with a mission to make children more competitive in the classroom and to improve their quality of life by exposing them to the world of math, science, the arts and more.

When the school bell rings, approximately 140 students file into The S.M.A.R.T. Institute to further their education. They are being groomed to handle life’s challenges in a positive way and to build for themselves a brighter future.

“It was truly a vision from God,” said Laschinski Emerson, the founder and director of The Smart Institute, a non-profit after school program serving students at Austin-East High School and Vine Middle School.

“We are trying to help the whole child. So we have classes on relationship building, culinary arts, music, dance, creative, STEM and the list just goes on,” said Emerson.

These students are being tutored, nurtured and exposed to classes they may otherwise never have access to, like picking up a foreign language or learning the skilled art of chess. STEM, science, technology, engineering and math education, is a major focus of the program. They have formed a robotics club that has made it to local competitions.More online: Contact S.M.A.R.T Institute

“Yes, I never thought about engineering or anything of that type before and this has put me on that path. I really have taken an interest in it. All of my classes are structured around it. Now, I take physics and calculus because of this group, said Regan Caruthers, a high school student in the program.

They have expectations placed on them to be their best by a village of community volunteer teachers. One of the program’s biggest achievements is raising nearly all of its students’ grades to passing. Emerson is quick to point out that they don’t consider a D grade passing by their standards.

“You think about when a kid comes to you and says “look what we did”, my F is now a C, and they have put you in that equation – all that (stress) goes away and you just keep working and you keep building so that you can serve more students.”

S.M.A.R.T. Institute mentors go beyond the book work

Getting through to the students in the program takes trust and mentorship, something that S.M.A.R.T. Institute has mastered: going beyond book work to invest in a child.

They say the game of chess is like the game of life, every move you make effects the outcome of the game. No one understands that like high school senior Eric Roberts.

Roberts said his freshman year in high school he used to stay in trouble until his teacher told him about the program. “I came one time and liked it,” he said. “Ever since then I came everyday.”

Now an ABC student, Roberts says the S.M.A.R.T. Institute has played a major role in turning his life around. Community volunteers spend time, not only teaching, but mentoring the dozens of students that come through the program. The teachers often ask the kids to look inward and reflect, so that is what is on the inside doesn’t get in the way of achieving success.

“We look at the places that they have deficiencies and we work with them. We make them bring that homework and do that homework and those problems in math that they don’t understand and that ACT, we really work with them on that trying to help them to be able to read and sort through those problems and questions,” said Loretta Fowlkes a volunteer teacher.

Knowing that someone believes in you and is pushing you can make all the difference. Regan Curathers barely know how to use tools when she came to the robotics club.

“I love seeing the finished product and like we built that,” said Curathers. “And like a lot of high schoolers don’t get to do that. They don’t get to say they built a robot. I didn’t think that was possible.”

Join the program

The S.M.A.R.T. Institute meets weekdays after school at Austin-East High School.

They also hold workshops for the parents and guardians of students. Programs include financial planning, to show how to save and invest, relationship building and teaching how to build a nurturing home life to support the student.

To apply for the program, contact:

A 1 Learning Connections, a 501(c)(3) Non-profit Organization (the non-profit organization that oversees The S.M.A.R.T. Institute)

8915 Farne Island Blvd.

Knoxville, TN 37923

Office (865) 384 – 4048

Fax (865) 539-1781

Laschinski Emerson, Executive Director: