• Outreach Specialist Works To Engage
    Spanish-Speaking Families

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 1/12/2022
    Patricia Robledo, hired last fall as KCS's first Latino community outreach specialist, is working to ensure that Spanish-speaking families and others have access to information they need about the district and its schools.
    Patricia Robledo, hired last fall as KCS's first Latino community outreach specialist, is working to ensure that Spanish-speaking families and others
    have access to information they need about the district and its schools.

    A trailblazing entrepreneur and civil servant who immigrated to the United States at the age of 17 is putting her skills and experience to work on behalf of KCS students and families.

    Patricia Robledo is the founder of a local translation / interpretation business and previously served as the City of Knoxville’s business and development liaison.

    Last year, Robledo was hired to serve as Knox County Schools’ first Latino community outreach specialist, a role in which she is working to increase engagement and improve communication with Spanish-speaking families and others that are not fluent in English.

    As part of that effort, Robledo has created a new Spanish-language Facebook page, and has been a key member of the Alliance For Educational Equity’s communications team. Approximately 8 percent of the district’s more than 61,000 students speak Spanish, and 5.1 percent are designated as English learners. Robledo’s work is focused on initiatives to ensure those families and others have access to information they need about the district and its schools.

    As a former KCS parent and volunteer, Robledo said she is excited to implement strategies that improve family communication. “Communication leads to engagement, which will hopefully lead to better educational outcomes,” she said. “It’s all part of a bigger picture that the district has, and whatever role I can play in helping with that will be great.”

    Robledo’s own life journey illustrates the challenges and opportunities for Spanish-speaking families and immigrants. When she moved to Knoxville with her family in 1981, she initially had limited English proficiency but began volunteering at the World’s Fair in 1982 as part of a team that welcomed visitors who spoke other languages.

    She eventually attended the University of Tennessee, then finished a double-major in biology and medical technology at Lindenwood University in St. Louis, before moving to New Hampshire where her two children were born.

    In 1995, she moved back to Tennessee with her family, and eventually received a call from Levi’s, which was looking for an interpreter to assist in communicating with Spanish-speaking employees.

    That experience sparked an entrepreneurial drive, and she launched Robledo Translations, a company that went on to work with a variety of private-sector firms as well as the federal government. She also became a founding member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of East Tennessee.

    In 2011, she received a call from Knoxville Mayor-Elect Madeline Rogero, asking her to join the new administration as the first director of the new Office of Business Support. She worked for the city throughout Rogero’s term, and was asked to remain by current Mayor Indya Kincannon after Kincannon was elected in 2019.

    Looking back, Robledo said the appointment was an amazing opportunity. “Never would I have thought, after arriving in Knoxville at the age of 17 with limited English proficiency, that maybe one day the newly elected and first female mayor of the City of Knoxville would call me and invite me and appoint me as the first Latina immigrant ever to be appointed to a city administration in Knoxville,” she said. “It was a great, great honor.”

    As the Spanish-speaking population within KCS has grown, the district in recent years has been focused on sharpening its communication strategy to reach families who are English-language learners.

    Carly Harrington, KCS Chief Public Affairs Officer, said Robledo’s long experience as an advocate and community leader along with her background in translation services, made her a perfect fit for the new role within the district.

    “Patricia is very well-respected in the Latino and greater Knoxville community, and a wonderful addition to our team,” said Harrington. “Her commitment and passion for helping students and families have already proven invaluable as we broaden our communication efforts and ensure that we are providing a welcoming environment for all.”

    Robledo is currently working on projects including a Spanish-language video library for families; a user-friendly translation tool for the KCS website; improvements to the district’s family messaging system; and focus groups to assess the district’s communication strategies.

    Throughout her career, she has enjoyed finding solutions, whether that meant assisting lost patrons at the World’s Fair, providing language services for businesses or helping city stakeholders navigate the administration to get the assistance they need.

    “And I think my role here at KCS is the same,” she added. “I may not know everything, but I’ll ask a lot of questions and at the end I’ll hopefully act as a bridge.”

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  • Karns High Podcast
    Keeps Students Informed

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 12/17/2021
    Karns High senior Caleb Jarreau interviews teacher Rachel Monday, as part of the school's new podcast, 'Dispatches From The Dam.'
    Karns High senior Caleb Jarreau interviews teacher Rachel Monday, as part of the school's new podcast, 'Dispatches From The Dam.'

    Journalism students at Karns High School are using a new platform to help their classmates stay informed.

    This fall, ELA teacher Rachel Monday’s class launched “Dispatches From The Dam”, an interview-style podcast that highlights students, school leaders and local celebrities with a Karns connection.

    Senior Caleb Jarreau is the show host, and got his start by working as a sportswriter for the school newspaper. Jarreau said that when he first was approached about the new role, he was concerned about the challenges that were involved.

    “Now I realize that it’s not easy, but it’s definitely not impossible,” he said. “And I didn’t realize how much fun I would have doing it.”

    Jarreau’s interview subjects have included fellow students, KHS principal Brad Corum and WBIR anchors Leslie Ackerson and Heather Waliga, who are Karns alumni.

    Jarreau said that before launching the project, he mostly listened to sports podcasts, but more recently his listening consumption has broadened. Since creating his own show, he also hears professional podcasts with a greater attention to detail.

    “It’s kind of like I’m thinking of it from an analytical standpoint,” he said. “Yeah, they’re talking about a current event but I also understand what's going on in the production, or if they played a newsclip I know how they did that. It’s kind of cool to think about now, understanding it from basically behind the scenes.”

    The project was made possible by a $500 grant from the Junior League. Monday, who also facilitates the school newspaper, said she enjoys listening to podcasts while commuting or working around the house, and was excited to explore a new media trend. “This gives them something that, really, if they had $500, they could do a podcast on their own,” she said of her students. “You don’t have to necessarily be hired at the News Sentinel to be covering news in your backyard.”

    “Dispatches From The Dam” – whose name refers to the school mascot, the Beavers – is available on Apple and Spotify, and can also be found on the website of The Karns Chronicle. The most recent episode included interviews with Monday and other KHS Teachers of the Year.

    While Jarreau will be graduating in the spring, other students are ready to take the reins next year, including junior Emily Moore and sophomore Violet Whitson.

    Moore writes the entertainment column for The Chronicle, but said she’s excited to try a different medium.

    “A podcast is so different, it’s just having a conversation that you then put out to the world, and it gives the creator a place to be creative and it gives the person they’re interviewing a pulpit to give their two cents from,” she said. “And I think especially with the school that we have, there’s a lot of people that deserve a pulpit.”

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  • KCS Community Gives, Receives
    During Holidays

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 12/17/2021
    Across Knox County, KCS employees and students take time during the holidays to assist those in need. Skikila Smith, an ELA teacher at Austin-East Magnet High, organizes an annual holiday shoe drive for Roadrunner students.
    Across Knox County, KCS employees and students take time during the holidays to assist those in need. Skikila Smith, an ELA teacher at Austin-East Magnet High, organizes an annual holiday shoe drive for Roadrunner students.

    As district schools prepared for Winter Break this month, final exams and end-of-semester activities weren’t the only items on the calendar. Across Knox County, students, families and school employees took time to give -- and receive -- gestures of kindness in the holiday spirit.

    At Austin-East Magnet High School, ELA teacher Skikila Smith -- known to her students as “Ms. Sky” -- has been coordinating an informal holiday shoe drive since joining the Roadrunner family as an intern in 2017.

    Smith said that when she lost her children’s father at the age of 21, her family benefited from local Angel Tree programs that provided holiday gifts, and she is also grateful for all the people who supported her when she got her master’s degree at the age of 42.

    The shoe drive is a way to give back and help students in need put their best foot forward, and Smith said A-E teachers help to identify potential recipients.

    “It would not be possible without a teacher that is looking to cultivate the entire human, and uplift the entire family,” she added.

    Organizers of the Farragut Giving Tree program provided gift bags to families in need.
    Organizers of the Farragut Giving Tree program provided gift bags to families in need.

    In some cases, the effort to assist families in need has been adjusted because of COVID-19. LeighAnna Colgrove, a Farragut High School parent, coordinates a Giving Tree program that supports families at four schools in that community.

    Colgrove said that in the past, the program would provide a clothing gift bag to families and give them a chance to pick a donated toy. Because of COVID, organizers last year adjusted the campaign to a drive-up event in which gift cards were provided.

    Colgrove said the feedback they received was positive, not only because of the additional privacy of the drive-up format but also because it allowed families to shop for their own Christmas gifts.

    This year, she said, organizers did shop for a handful of families who had transportation or medical challenges, but gift cards were mostly provided. In addition, because donations exceeded expectations, they were also able to provide coats and shoes, while private donors provided school hoodies, a Walmart gift card and a food box.

    “We were just overwhelmed by the generosity this year,” Colgrove said.

    KCS students have also benefited from the generosity of outside organizations, including East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.

    Shelli Eberle, principal of Fort Sanders Educational Development Center, said Children’s does an annual Christmas tree drive at the school in honor of a former patient who passed away.

    The drive has grown so significantly that this year, ETCH was able to provide 125 mini-trees – one for each student.

    Eberle said students have enjoyed the chance to take home an individual tree, and that the drive has been a bright spot of the holiday season.

    “Seeing the joy on each child's face as they picked out their very own tree to take home was an important reminder to look for the magic of the holiday season," she said.  "We are so grateful to have ETCH as such an incredible Partner in Education.”

    East Tennessee Children's Hospital provided 125 mini-trees for children at Fort Sanders Educational Development Center.
    East Tennessee Children's Hospital provided 125 mini-trees for children at Fort Sanders Educational Development Center.
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  • A-E Students Earn
    Flagship Offers From UTK

    Posted by JOSHUA FLORY on 12/9/2021
    At a surprise ceremony on Dec. 8, University of Tennessee director Redrick Taylor made admissions offers to Zakoyous Houston, Anndrena Downs and Mariusi Irankunda, as part of the Flagship Scholars program.
    At a surprise ceremony on Dec. 8, the University of Tennessee's Redrick Taylor III made admissions offers to Zakoyous Houston, Anndrena Downs and Mariusi Irankunda, as part of the Flagship Scholars program.

    Three seniors from Austin-East Magnet High School saw their academic efforts pay off in a big way this week, thanks to a scholarship program from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

    During a surprise celebration at the school on Wednesday, UT’s Redrick Taylor III made admissions offers to Zakoyous Houston, Anndrena Downs and Mariusi Irankunda.

    The offers are part of the university’s Flagship Scholarship, which is available for students at A-E, Fulton and Central high schools. When combined with the HOPE Scholarship, the Flagship program covers a student’s tuition and mandatory fees for up to eight semesters.

    The offers were made during a ceremony in the school’s performing arts auditorium, with friends and family members looking on.

    Lashaundra Lenoir said Houston, her stepson, has been checking the mailbox for weeks hoping to find an acceptance letter, because UT is his top choice.

    “He’s the oldest of four brothers in my household and he’s a leader,” she added. “He’s leading by example so it’s very exciting for his younger brothers to see him getting accepted to his top pick.”

    For Downs, who has maintained a 4.0 GPA during her time at A-E, the acceptance into one of her top college choices is a first step toward pursuing a dream of majoring in biology, while honing the leadership skills she began to develop in high school.

    Asked what it means to be a Roadrunner, Downs said it’s a family -- “having people in your reach at all times who will do whatever for you when it comes down to it.”

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  • Bearden Student Aces
    Entrance Exam ... Twice!

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 10/29/2021
    Bearden High student Lydia Pulsinelli earned perfect scores on both the ACT and SAT college entrance exams.
    Bearden High student Lydia Pulsinelli earned perfect scores on both the ACT and SAT college entrance exams.

    After earning a perfect composite score on the ACT exam, a Bearden High School student had an impressive encore -- a perfect score on the SAT!

    Lydia Pulsinelli is a senior at Bearden, and stellar academic performance is only a part of her resume. She has also participated in theater, played on the Ultimate Frisbee team for four years, and serves as president of the Latin Club.

    But her performance on the two college entrance exams puts her in rare company among high school students.

    Pulsinelli said she took several practice tests to prepare, adding that when she takes a high-stakes test, “I just sort of go into a different mental zone, just really focused for those few hours. And then I come out of it and can barely remember what just happened.”

    In her spare time, the senior enjoys hiking and gardening and said she is aiming for a career in  agricultural science or a similar field. In the meantime, she is applying to colleges including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Vermont, Cornell University and the University of Washington.

    Pulsinelli cited the influence of her teachers at Bearden, including Sandy Hughes, for Latin and Medieval Studies; Tonya Henke, for Environmental Science; Chris Taylor, for AP U.S. History; and Tim Vacek, for AP Seminar.

    She said she particularly likes classes that combine learning and fun, adding that “In general, I enjoy school.”

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  • Lighting Upgrade Saves Energy,
    Helps Student-Athletes Shine

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 10/7/2021
    South-Doyle high school athletic director and football coach Clark Duncan (left) and KCS energy manager Zane Foraker discuss new LED lights that were recently installed at South-Doyle and other stadiums across Knox County.
    South-Doyle High School athletic director and football coach Clark Duncan (left) and KCS energy manager Zane Foraker discuss new LED lights that were recently installed at South-Doyle and stadiums across Knox County.

    A project that aims to save energy and improve lighting for Knox County students is making a visible difference at high schools across the county.

    Earlier this year, the Board of Education approved a proposal from Trane Technologies to convert school lighting to LED technology, using new and retrofitted fixtures. The $26.1 million project is fully self-funded through guaranteed utility and operational savings, and will replace existing lighting in classrooms, parking lots and other settings.

    Perhaps the highest-profile change has come at athletic fields. Replacement lighting has now been installed at most of the district’s stadiums, and has not only resulted in improved visibility, but also provides additional features to promote school spirit.

    Unlike traditional stadium lights which need to warm up, the LED system can be turned on and off immediately. The new system can also provide light-show style displays with multiple colors and patterns.

    Clark Duncan, football coach and athletic director at South-Doyle High School, said the quality of the Trane system was immediately noticeable, especially compared to the previous system.

    “There were times on our field that there were dark spots, at times it wasn’t lit well enough,” Duncan said. “We were told that the new system was going to be like daytime, and oh my gosh, it’s just like daytime. It’s like noon at nine o’clock. It’s amazing how well you can see.”

    At South-Doyle, School Security Officer Michael Cain has worked with student leaders who asked to implement a light show after the third quarter of football games. With approval from administrators, students pick a song that is played as part of the display.

    Cain said student attendance has risen this year, adding that “To me it makes Friday nights even better.”

    Ultimately, of course, the lighting project is all about reducing energy consumption and providing savings for schools across the district -- even on the football field.

    Zane Foraker, energy manager for Knox County Schools, said that instead of turning stadium lights on several hours before a game, coaches can now wait until they’re needed. After games, they can be automated to turn off at midnight. Most important, he said, is the cost savings from lower energy use.

    “This is paid for with the energy savings. So over the term of the contract Knox County is not spending any money on these, they pay for themselves.”

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  • Powell High Earns
    Renaissance Recognition

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 10/5/2021
    The Renaissance Program, at Powell High School, supports activities such as Winter Wishes, which provides a holiday gift to every student. In 2019, principal Chad Smith, assistant principal Julie Liford, and teacher Beth Mooney took a moment to celebrate a successful Winter Wishes celebration.
    The Renaissance Program, at Powell High School, supports activities such as Winter Wishes, which provides a holiday gift to every student.
    In 2019, principal Chad Smith, facilitator Julie Liford, and teacher Beth Mooney took a moment to celebrate a successful Winter Wishes celebration.

    An effort to build positivity has resulted in national recognition for a Knox County high school.

    Powell High School was recently designated a Platinum-level School of Distinction by the Jostens Renaissance program, which celebrates schools that are making a positive impact on their climate and culture.

    Beth Mooney, a science teacher and Renaissance faculty sponsor, said PHS has participated in the Renaissance program for more than two decades, but has renewed its focus on the initiative recently.

    Renaissance emphasizes six R-themed priorities: respect, recognize, reward, reinforce, relationships and results. To that end, Mooney said Powell sponsors a variety of activities, including pep rallies, positive messages and events such as Winter Wishes, in which every Powell student receives a holiday gift before Winter Break.

    To earn the Platinum distinction, Powell met 14 benchmarks, in areas including social media messaging; recognition of students and faculty; and a commitment to graduation.

    Mooney said PHS teachers and staff are focused on students, adding that “We want to make this an inclusive place and promote a family feel where everyone is welcome.”

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  • Vision Team Makes
    A Difference For Students

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 10/5/2021
    Janet French creates academic materials in braille for students who are blind or vision-impaired.
    Janet French creates academic materials in braille for students who are blind or vision-impaired. (Photo credit / Mandi Taylor)

    On a recent morning at Sterchi Elementary, Janet French took a one-page sheet of writing exercises and scanned them into her computer.

    After making sure the worksheet was correct, she entered a command and a staccato noise like a miniature jackhammer rang out from a nearby printer, as embossed pages unfurled from the device.

    Several minutes later, French retrieved a six-page sheet of double-spaced braille pages from the printer, ready for use by a student at the school.

    While the KCS Vision Department is a relatively small portion of the district’s overall workforce, braillists like French -- along with KCS teachers of the visually impaired and orientation & mobility specialists -- have a huge impact for approximately 150 blind or low-vision students in Knox County.

    Mandi Taylor, a teacher of the visually impaired, said those students can use a wide range of tools that vary in degrees of technological complexity.

    At one end of the spectrum are simple magnifying tools, such as a half-sphere “dome magnifier” for books or a telescope-like monocular to assist with viewing material at a distance, such as writing on a classroom whiteboard.

    Digital tools are also available, such as closed-circuit TV devices that can display written material or the image of a teacher on a digital screen.

    Braille -- a tactile writing system of raised dots on paper --  is also an important resource. Sterchi is one of four district schools with dedicated braille stations, along with Farragut Middle, Carter High and South-Doyle High.

    The braille system is utilized in a variety of ways. Students can use braille flashcards to practice math facts or other memorization tasks, and a tactical graphics kit can help teachers create materials by hand.

    More advanced tools include the “Jaws” screen reader, which can read on-screen text out loud, and even a BrailleNote Touch tablet, in which braille dots pop up along a narrow strip at the bottom of the tablet as users scroll through material.

    Learning to read braille can take two years, and Taylor said the tools used by students may change over time, especially as they get older and take on different challenges.

    Lauren Switzer, a teacher and orientation / mobility specialist, said the department works to identify the right tool for each student’s particular needs and goals, adding that the overall objective is for students “to have enormous tool kits to pull from in the right situation.”

    The Vision Department includes two braillists, nine itinerant specialists / teachers and a team of vision technicians who travel to schools and conduct vision assessments.

    In many cases, the employees who work in the department were drawn to their jobs after an experience of working with a vision-impaired person. Taylor said she was an elementary teacher who worked with two children who had vision impairments, including one who was learning braille -- “It blew my mind, and I just became interested in the process,” she said.

    Switzer was pursuing a career in physical therapy, but reconsidered after working with a woman who was blind. “I enjoyed how my brain had to work a little bit differently, I had to be more creative,” she said.

    The work can also create a close bond with students. French, who creates braille materials, has even been invited to the weddings of former students.

    Summer Tucker, special education supervisor for KCS, said the work is rewarding in part because its impact goes beyond the classroom.

    “You are giving students skills that are going to help them in life,” she said.

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  • Boyd Foundation Gift
    Will Benefit Green Magnet

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 9/23/2021
    Principal Jessica Holman and students from Green Magnet Academy celebrate a $650,000 gift from Randy Boyd, the Boyd Family and the Boyd Foundation.
    Principal Jessica Holman and students from Green Magnet Academy celebrate a $650,000 gift from Randy Boyd, the Boyd Family and the Boyd Foundation.

    The Boyd Foundation announced Tuesday that it will provide a $650,000 gift to reimagine the outdoor learning space at Green Magnet Academy.

    The gift was made in coordination with Knox Education Foundation and will allow several upgrades to the school’s existing 0.75-acre outdoor space, including:

    -- An outdoor classroom;
    -- A performance stage;
    -- A maker space;
    -- An 8-foot-wide asphalt track;
    -- A playing surface for full-court basketball and four-square;
    -- A play structure;
    -- A shaded area; and
    -- Seating options including benches and tables.

    “The Boyd Foundation is excited to partner with Green Magnet and Principal Holman to reimagine the outdoor space for its students,” said Randy Boyd, president and co-founder of the Boyd Foundation. “Imaginative play, recess and outdoor learning are critical components to a child’s overall development. Promoting fun and a healthy lifestyle, we hope this new outdoor space is utilized by Green Magnet students for years to come.”

    “Support from community partners plays an essential role in our educational mission,” said Superintendent Bob Thomas. “The Boyd Foundation and the Boyd family have been extremely generous to Knox County Schools for many years, and I am grateful for their passion about a new outdoor learning space at Green Magnet Academy.”

    The project was designed by Hedstrom Landscape Architecture, and is expected to be completed by the Fall of 2022.

    “I never would have imagined that a project like this was a possibility for our school,” said Green principal Jessica Holman. “Reimagining our outdoor space will be a huge blessing for our students, and I am very thankful for the Boyd family’s willingness to invest in the GMA school community.”

    “We are thrilled that we were able to facilitate this incredible collaboration to transform the learning environment for students at Green Magnet,” said Knox Education Foundation CEO Chris Letsos. “The Boyd's investment will truly make a lasting impact at Green, and throughout our East Knoxville community.”

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  • WWE Superstar Bianca Belair
    Visits Austin-East

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 9/17/2021
    On Sept. 16, WWE Superstar and Austin-East graduate Bianca Belair visited the school for a Homecoming pep rally.
    On Sept. 16, WWE Superstar and Austin-East graduate Bianca Belair visited the school for a Homecoming pep rally. (Photo credit / Justin Johnson)

    Students from Austin-East Magnet High School enjoyed a celebrity visit to kick off Homecoming weekend.

    At a school pep rally on Thursday, WWE Superstar and A-E graduate Bianca Belair made a surprise visit, in advance of her appearance at the Friday Night Smackdown event at Thompson-Boling Arena on Sept. 17.

    Belair graduated from Austin-East in 2007 and went on to a standout career as a track athlete at the University of Tennessee before joining WWE in 2016. She has emerged as a star this year, winning WWE’s Royal Rumble event in January and the Smackdown Women’s Championship at WrestleMania 37 in April.

    Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who performed with WWE as Kane, also made an appearance at Thursday’s pep rally, wearing blue-and-red socks in honor of the Roadrunners.

    Belair told students that she loved being a student at Austin-East, and wouldn’t have achieved her success without the school.

    In an interview, Belair said the thing she remembers most about her alma mater was the camaraderie, adding that “I always say I’m 2800 made” – a reference to the school’s address at 2800 Martin Luther King, Jr., Avenue.

    “I’m really just pushing the message for (students), don’t forget where you come from, be proud of where you come from, but strive for greatness,” she said. “Because if you come from Austin-East, greatness lives inside of you.”

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