Vrondelia “Ronnie” Chandler

By Vivian Shipe

KNOXVILLE, TN — “When the enemy shall come in, like a flood, the Lord shall raise up a standard against him”. These words from Isaiah 59:19, aptly describe Ronni Chandler, Executive Director of Project Grad who is retiring effective June 30th of this year. For over 20 years, she has been the standard used to lead a program that has served over 32,000 center city students from 2001 to 2022. 

Project Grad, (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams), had a mission: increase the graduation rate of students from Austin-East and Fulton High Schools. Over the last 22 years they have raised that graduation rate from 50 percent to over 80 percent. and worked successfully to raise post-secondary enrollment from 30 percent to 56 percent and their scholarship recipients exceed the national average for higher education completion.

Like most great leaders, over the decades, Chandler surrounded herself with a solid team, dedicated with one mindset, serving the kids with love, dignity and respect; as Chandler put it, “prioritizing through the lens of what is best for our kids”. The teams at both schools under her leadership, have been successful by working through an environmental lens, that centers poverty and people of color. Her dedication to her kids and leadership example was never more evident than during 2018, when the program was on the chopping block of the school board’s agenda.

April, 9th 2018, history was made in Knoxville as the community showed up to the Knox County Board of Education  work session, a session that would last over 7.5  hours. The community came in by the droves. Over 1000 strong, filling the city county building from the floor to the rafters, even filling the courtyard outside; all standing behind Chandler as she stood toe to toe with those who would try to shut down the program that was helping so many children. 

That night, Chandler came in like a flood, as strong and courageous as Joshua 1:9 commanded. Armed with positive with test results, solid audit information, even using the lyrics of the song, “what about the children,” Chandler the Standard, fought to keep the program going. Indeed, when the smoke finally cleared, when all the battles were over, and the flood waters receded, Project Grad still stood.

Some of the members of Project Grad teams

Today Project Grad is the flag ship model across the country, exceeding all metrics and barriers placed in front of it year after year. It is the people who came that April night that provided the executive one of her greatest memories. Chandler fondly relived the moment seeing in her mind’s eye, “The image of an entire community, from all walks of life, standing with, and for our kids in the center city, and young people standing up for themselves”.

The seeds planted by the program are reaping a great harvest locally and worldwide. Grad scholars hold positions all over the world.  Grad has been able hire two alumni fulltime to its staff and two grad professionals now sit on its board of directors. Then there are the stories from those who went through the program: a testament to the passion of Chandler and her team with one young man, a first-generation college student telling her, “Mrs. C, my parents grew up poor and we struggled, but my future children won’t have to”.

Ever the visionary, Mrs. Chandler, as she looks forward to the next level that God is taking her had this to say about Project Grad, “I see hope and opportunity growing exponentially, led by young people who have themselves been served by Grad across the years.”

Legacy has many definitions. The definition that fits the effect that Executive Director Ronni Chandler has had, not only upon the 32,000 plus students who came through Project Grad, the community of Knoxville and the nation and world is this: the long-lasting impact of particular events, actions, etc… that took place in a person’s life.

What an impact, what a standard.

Tip of the hat to Executive Director Ronni Chandler. Job well done.