Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of tnAchieves, the partnering organization to the TN Promise Scholarship, is a Warren County High School graduate.
The former Krissy Walker was a cheerleader in high school when the team was under the direction of Patti Clarke. She graduated with the class of 1997.
DeAlejando describes her work with tnAchieves as this: “We work with high school seniors to ensure that every student who wishes to attend college has the opportunity to not only attend but earn a college credential.”
DeAlejandro and her 26-person staff work to eliminate barriers for college-aspiring high school students, many of whom come from low-income households or are the first in their family to attend college.
“The student who would be the first in their family, who may be intimidated by the FAFSA process — that’s the student that we really dig in with,” she says.
TnAchieves helps high school students complete FAFSA, recruits volunteer mentors and partners them with the students, and facilitates student completion of the TN Promise community service requirement. One of the goals for tnAchieves since its inception, says DeAlejandro, has been “to serve students who never thought college was an option.”
DeAlejandro was born in Lebanon to young parents. Her mother was 16, and her father was 19. She and her family moved to McMinnville, her father Jeff’s hometown, before she was 2.
Her father was a dirt-track racecar driver and he would pursue his passion at tracks all over Tennessee and the South, bringing his wife Tina and daughter Krissy with him, along with other folks.
“We went with a motley crew of people. There was always a posse that went with us, people that would hop in the truck and go with us every Saturday,” DeAlejandro says.
To entertain herself at races in Shelbyville, Winchester, Crossville, wherever they went, a young Krissy would get creative. “I would pretend to be part of the pit crew and really was fascinated with the jack. You know, you find ways to pass the time if you’re a child and you’re at a dirt racetrack.”
Eventually, Krissy got older and she finally had a heart-to-heart with her parents about the car races, telling them, “I really dislike going to these things. Can I just stay home?”
Krissy attended West, Biles, and Northside elementary schools, then the junior high, then the newly built Warren County High School where she was a cheerleader. “Patti Clarke was my cheerleading coach, and she took what we did very seriously,” DeAlejandro says. “It taught me a lot of work ethic and discipline and time management at a young age.”
Her favorite teachers in high school were Linda King for calculus, Medora Willmore for junior English, and Dr. Haskell Greer for history.
After graduating with the WCHS class of 1997, Krissy was off to the University of the South, along with fellow McMinnvillian Wallace Marsh. The two were taken on their first Sewanee campus tour by another Warren County native, Ben Myers.
Furthermore, for her junior year of college, Krissy roomed with current Warren County High School Spanish teacher Anne Hunter Myers.
She graduated from Sewanee with a degree in political science, but she still came back to McMinnville every summer of college to work for Carlene Brown at the Civic Center/ city swimming pool. She even staffed the McMinnville Parks putt-putt course one summer. “I worked there one summer and got a lot of reading done. That’s what I did. No one came,” Krissy says of the mini-golf course, helping to put into perspective why it no longer exists.
Following the attainment of her bachelor’s degree, she pursued graduate studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. While a master’s student, she started as an intern in Knox County mayor Mike Ragsdale’s office, where at first her tasks were rather mundane. “I remember a day where I just stapled a lot of documents,” she says.
She would become Ragsdale’s Deputy Chief of Staff.
It was in the Knox County mayor’s office in 2008 that KnoxAchieves, the precursor to tnAchieves, was launched. Says DeAlejandro, “We knew that students were graduating from Knox County schools and not pursuing college. We started building a program that really tried to bring those students into the college pipeline, and that’s how KnoxAchieves was born.”
Taking charge as the executive director and only employee of KnoxAchieves in 2008, DeAlejandro started expanding the nonprofit to other counties in 2011. KnoxAchieves became tnAchieves, and in 2014 the Tennessee Promise was signed into law, making tnAchieves a truly statewide entity.
One thing DeAlejandro tries to do is constantly stay in contact with the students she serves. “I still connect with students nearly every day,” she says. “If you pull up our website, my cellphone is the first phone number you will find.”
A point DeAlejandro emphasizes to high school students is that she herself was a first-generation college student. “I was the first in my family to go to college,” she says. “It was scary and intimidating, and there were times when I just wanted to walk away.”
She has not forgotten about Warren County. She brings her husband Jeffrey and their three children to town every so often to visit her parents, who still live in the house that she herself grew up in. “They were really, really great parents,” DeAlejandro says of her mother and father.