KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — For nearly two decades, the UUNIK Academy has made a difference in education one student at a time. What started as a passion for founder Reggie Jenkins has now become his full-time mission.

“Our mission is to assist in the holistic development of our youth and help them become transformed into productive leaders in our society,” Jenkins said.

It’s a mission that Jenkins has and continues to uphold through the academy he started 17 years ago.

The UUNIK Academy is a nonprofit that focuses on educational advancement for Knoxville’s Black youth. Jenkins says this passion was driven by a need for greater attention to Knoxville’s Black students.

“In Tennessee, particularly in Knoxville, according to the Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee report card, 80 percent of African-American youth between the third and eighth grade are not proficient in math, reading, science, and they’re behind,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins started off by constructing summer programs that incorporate STEM education to introduce students to fields with the highest demand.

“We want to expose them to STEM fields because it’s the 21st century as you see in Covid, those who excel in STEM are doing very well, those who are not, are not doing so well. So society has transformed and unfortunately, a lot of the schools and other things have not built their curriculum towards where society is, so we want to expose our children early to it,” Jenkins said.

The academy is more than just educational growth, it focuses on personal growth as well.

The letters in the name each stand for a different Kwanzaa principle; Jenkins encourages his students to carry these principles with them through their everyday lives.

“UUNIK academy is an acronym. It’s U-U-N-I-K. It’s five of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: ‘Umoja, Ujima, Nia, Imani, Kujichagulia.’ So those are all principles. So every morning when I work with the kids, I instill that in them. About unity, self-determination, faith, purpose, cooperative economics. Those principles should be inundated everyday in our activities,” Jenkins said.

Staying true to the mission, the UUNIK Academy has indeed created productive leaders in our society. The impact on students, lasting into their adulthood.

Jacquez Cotner, a former UUNIK Academy student is now a senior at Middle Tennessee University and says the UUNIK Academy has prepared him not only for his college career, but has helped him be a better man.

“It really helps you focus on what to set goals for long-term, short-term, how to actually plan out your education for school, quick methods to get ahead of the curve, it helps set you up for a better path,” Cotner said.

The next steps for Jenkins include opening his own private school. The plan is still in the fundraising stages, but for now, he’s testing things out virtually.