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STEP-UP in the News

Keep up with the latest STEP-UP news and announcements here!


STEP-UP helps diverse students earn career success


By Mary Fortune, Times Free Press, Sunday, April 4, 2021

For Tyrese Starling, the STEP-UP internship program was more than just an opportunity to earn some money and learn new skills during high school.

"I don't know if I would have went to college without them and met the people I know now — people that look like me that have doctorate degrees, master's degrees, working downtown," says Starling, a Tyner High School graduate and a junior at Middle Tennessee State University. "Everybody in my family and 80% of the people I went to school with, they graduate and work in a factory. There's nothing wrong with that, but I guess I wanted more."

As the first person in his family to go to college, Starling, 22, is breaking a pattern of financial struggle that the STEP-UP program was designed to dismantle, says Jeff Rector, the business partnerships manager for STEP-UP.

"We get emails from parents and grandmas and aunts and uncles saying these words: This program changed my kid's life," Rector says. "It's breaking the cycle, and it gives them hope."

The program exposed him for the first time to mentors who could help him imagine what was possible, Starling says.

"Role models that looked like me, and role models that did not," Starling says. "But they all wanted the best for me."

Rector describes the requirements of the program as straightforward: good attendance, a good attitude and on track to graduate. About 99% of participants are from low-income households, and they are typically referred by teachers and counselors in Hamilton County schools.

"We want the program to help them understand that there's more to the world than what they see between home and school, and to prepare them for better paying jobs which turns into health insurance and benefits and a better life overall," he says. Read More


Former STEP-UP Intern shares how her internship resulted in ongoing employment

By D'Wauna Young, STEP-UP  Chattanooga, Tuesday, February 2, 2021

We are always happy to hear from former interns on how they are doing academically and professionally.  It is especially nice when they reach out to us to thank STEP-UP Chattanooga for the meaningful experience they've had with the program. We recently received a note from Veronica Robinson, a Kennesaw State University sophomore currently majoring in Exercise Science. Robinson participated in STEP-UP work readiness training in 2019 while dual-enrolled at Collegiate High at Chattanooga State. 

"I was paired with Unum [in the Summer of 2019] and I still work there to this day due to the training you all provided years ago," she wrote. "I wanted to thank you...for working so hard for our youth."

As a Solutions Expediter Assistant for Unum, Veronica works remotely crafting Excel workbooks for data analysis, developing communication strategies for multiple projects and hosting meetings for discussions of those strategies.

Miss Robinson recently returned to STEP-UP to serve as a Networking Panelist for our Virtual STEP-UP Training of new students. On the panel, she shared with the high school students tips of how to properly maintain a virtual presence and build professional relationships during internships. Veronica added her younger brother saw the great opportunity STEP-UP provided her and wanted to join the program. The Tyner Academy sophomore is currently in our work-readiness training!


Class Notes: PEF honors Robert Siskin, awards CCA grad the Robert Siskin Scholarship

By Meghan Mangrum, Local Regional News, Monday, July  22, 2019

The Public Education Foundation recently recognized Robert Siskin for his 19 years of service on the organization's board of directors by awarding the Robert Siskin Scholarship to Jaylon Atkins, a 2019 graduate of Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts.

On July 17th, Siskin presented the scholarship to Atkins. "Jaylon is an outstanding young man and I look forward to seeing him make many great contributions to our community and country," Siskin said in a news release.

Atkins will be starting at MTSU in the fall, where he plans to pursue a computer science degree. The $500 scholarship presented by Siskin can be used to purchase books for classes.  "I am thankful to be supported by my family, PEF, and strong community members like the Siskins," Atkins said in a statement.

In 2018, Atkins' participated in the foundation's Camp College at the University of the South, and he recently participated in its STEP-UP program, working in a paid internship at Baker Donelson. He was selected for the scholarship by Siskin himself, based on his academic success and commitment to the Chattanooga community, according to a news release.

"PEF is delighted to recognize Robert Siskin for his service to our board and to public education," said Dan Challener, president of the foundation, in a statement. "In his 19 years on PEF's board, Robert has made many important contributions, including chairing the committee that revised all of our human resources policies and serving on our investment committee. He and his wife, Pris, have also been loyal and generous donors to PEF."

Before retiring, Siskin served as executive vice president at Siskin Steel and Supply. 

Jaylon Atkins, center, receives scholarship from Pris and Robert Siskin. The scholarship was established in honor of Mr. Siskin's 19 years of service on PEF's board of directors. (Contributed photo by D. Young)

River City Company photos highlight 30 years of Chattanooga history, growth


By Sean Phipps,, Thursday, August 23, 2018

A sample collection of more than 4,000 photo slides featuring 30 years of change in downtown Chattanooga have been digitally scanned.

The slides were preserved as a part of River City Company’s archives, but they remained in storage for years. This week, NOOGAtoday was offered a sneak peek at a portion of the collection to share.

Keep up with the latest STEP-UP news and announcements here!

about them, but he finally got around to it. He did an amazing job going through all the slides and getting everything organized.”

The collection highlights myriad changes to the downtown landscape from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s. Specifically, the photos show how leaders embraced the riverfront — with the construction of the Tennessee Aquarium, renovation of the Walnut Street Bridge — and re-imagined the South Broad Street area by creating the First Tennessee Pavilion and Finley Stadium.

Donohue said River City Company is working to make the entire collection available to the public in the future. Many of the photos still need to be accurately dated.

“These pictures are not useful sitting on a shared drive,” she said. “We’re working on figuring out the best way to share them to the public, but we haven’t had time to figure that out yet.”

In the meantime, the photos offer a glimpse of how Chattanooga was transformed from “one of the dirtiest cities in America” in the 1960s to a destination city by the early 2000s.  Read More

Brian Velasquez.JPG

2018 STEP-UP Intern Brian Velasquez credited for organizing employer's historical photos

Brian Velasquez, River City’s intern through PEF Chattanooga’s STEP-UP program, made the project his top priority this summer. The program offers rising high school juniors and seniors an opportunity to work with local companies.  

He's the reason we got all these slides digitized," Amy Donohue, River City's director of marketing and communication said. "We had always been thinking 

By Meghan Mangrum, Local Regional News, Saturday, January 20, 2018 

Across Chattanooga and the surrounding area, 40 businesses, organizations and nonprofit groups have committed to hiring Hamilton County high school students for paid internships this summer through the Public Education Fund's program STEP-UP Chattanooga.

STEP-UP places low-income students in internships at local businesses and organizations and provides work-readiness training for students throughout the spring before their summer internships.

Last year, the program's goal was to place 175 students in internships. It placed 153 with 95 different employers.

This summer, the program's goal is 200.

"This is what makes Chattanooga a special place, where people work together to do special things for kids," said Dan Challener, president of PEF. "We want students who want to be part of our community. We just need more internships There are young people, young adults who are waiting for that opportunity."

The partners who already have committed to hiring an intern include companies such as Pinnacle Financial, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union and Unum, as well as nonprofits such as Northside Neighborhood House, Tech Town and the United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

Forty business partners means about 75 internships, according to Jeff Rector, PEF's business partnerships manager. The obligation that comes with hiring an intern includes 20 to 30 hours of work a week for six weeks over the summer.  Read more

STEP-UP Chattanooga seeking local businesses to hire high school interns this summer

Local videographer focuses on STEP-UP Intern Brian Townsend as he tells businesses why the program is vital for high school students. (Contributed photo by D. Young)

Alexis Jackson was an intern working at SmartBank during the first summer of STEP-UP Chattanooga

Chattanooga Students Stepping Up


When it comes to finding job opportunities, it’s important to have a network of supporters who believe in you, can help guide you and even introduce you to potential employers. A new program in Chattanooga is helping disadvantaged high school students learn how to create or widen their networks.


STEP-UP Chattanooga is modeled on the successful high school internship program created in Minneapolis and saw its first interns matched with Chattanooga businesses this summer.


STEP-UP is designed to teach public school juniors and seniors how to successfully work in a business setting and then place them in summer internships with local businesses, where they will receive on-the-job training and establish valuable professional relationships.


“I was kind of nervous about the interview, but we did workshops to help us prepare and create a résumé,” says Destiny O’Dell, who worked in visitors services at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Fellow aquarium intern Madison Mercer felt the same way, adding that her experience was great.


“I think STEP-UP is amazing for people from low-income families, like me, who might not otherwise be presented with these opportunities,” Mercer said.

Her manager said STEP-UP prepared the students well for their interviews and their jobs.


“Madison came with a very professional appearance. She made great eye contact. She was basically a pro already,” says Andrew Kroeger, admissions and reservations manager at the Tennessee Aquarium...  Read more

Stacy Lightfoot helps students 'Step Up' and learn through internships

December 1st, 2016 by Tim Omarzu

Last summer, 76 low-income Hamilton County high school seniors and juniors got internships at local businesses through Step-Up Chattanooga, a new program of the Public Education Foundation that aims to give students the skills they need to make it in today's job market.

And look for that to grow by 100 more students when the internship program gets going next summer, said Step-Up's director, Stacy Lightfoot, who is PEF's vice president for college and career success...Read more


Intern program helping shape future for students, local businesses

Thursday, July 21, 2016



Makalah Smith said she’s learning more over the summer than she would from years of sitting in a classroom. On Thursday alone, Smith, a junior at East Hamilton School, learned how to use a dual stethoscope and worked with cardio rehab patients. This summer, she’s also been able to observe surgeries and work in nursing administration at CHI Memorial Hospital. Smith said she’s known for a while she wants to be a doctor or nurse, and working in the hospital this summer is helping prepare her for that future. “I’m seeing the whole medical experience from a different side,” she said. “From the inside.” Smith is one of 84 Step-Up Chattanooga interns working this summer at more than 40 businesses and organizations across Hamilton County. Two are working at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Step-Up Chattanooga was launched earlier this spring by the Public Education Foundation and the Hamilton County Department of Education. The aim is to get low-income juniors and seniors into paid internships designed to train and connect them with employers. Jeff Rector, business partner manager for Step- Up Chattanooga, said the program allows students to network with people outside of their social circle and develop soft skills needed in the job market... Read more


Public high school students work as STEP-UP Chattanooga paid
summer interns


Hamilton County public high school students worked at 40 Chattanooga area businesses, nonprofits, and organizations this summer thanks to Public Education Foundation’s new STEP-UP Chattanooga program.

In collaboration with partners and funders, Public Education Foundation (PEF) and Hamilton County Department of Education launched STEP-UP Chattanooga in January, a robust internship program for high school juniors and seniors in Hamilton County public schools designed to address the challenges faced by both businesses and students in a complex, changing global economy. STEP-UP serves underrepresented students from low-income backgrounds, those most at risk for joblessness and lack of higher education... Read more

Dozens of Employers Sign Up To Hire STEP-UP Chattanooga Paid Summer Interns

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Forty Chattanooga area businesses, nonprofits and organizations will employ HCDE high school students this summer through the STEP-UP Chattanooga paid summer internship program.


The students who are applying to be STEP-UP Chattanooga paid summer interns will be doing mock interviews Thursday evening with Chattanooga area business leaders to help them prepare for the work they will be doing this summer... Read more

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