• Book Program Gives
    A Boost To Belle Morris

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/21/2019
    Students walking into Gibbs Middle School on the first day of school.
    Belle Morris Elementary students read in the library on May 20, 2019

    A group of Belle Morris Elementary students got an assist with their summer reading on Monday.

    Earlier this school year, the Great Schools Partnership provided a $10,500 grant to educators at Belle Morris. That funding allowed 60 students to pick out $125 worth of books, which they received at a celebration on Monday.

    The idea came from 4th-grade teacher Olivia Cates, and was based on research that found children with access to books were less likely to see academic declines over the summer.

    Cates said another key to the program is that students were able to choose their books, from a list of nearly 340 titles. “Choice is motivating,” the teacher said. “Everybody loves to have a choice, so they’re more likely to want to read them if they have choice and ownership.”

    On Monday, students who came to pick up their books were greeted with a confetti cannon and encouraging words from KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas, who urged them to spend part of their summer vacation reading.

    Besides taking home books, participating students will have the chance to meet four times during the summer for book-themed events, including activities related to STEM learning, the arts and the Knoxville Zoo.

    Library media specialist Louanne Nicely curated the list of books that students could choose from, and said popular choices for younger students include Caldecott Medal winners, the “Fly Guy” series and David Shannon’s “No, David!”

    The most popular choice for 1st- and 2nd-graders may be the Elephant and Piggie series, which was written by Mo Willems, an author and illustrator who is also known for books such as “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!”

    “They really love Mo Willems,” Nicely said of her students. “He’s like a big superstar.”

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  • Mooreland Students Get Bikes
    For Perfect Attendance

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/17/2019
    District Attorney General Charme Allen and KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas pose with students who achieved perfect attendance.
    District Attorney General Charme Allen, KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas and Mooreland Heights Principal Brandi Self pose with students who achieved perfect attendance.

    Charme Allen returned to Mooreland Heights Elementary School this week, fulfilling a promise and helping more than 30 students kick-start their summer.

    Last fall, Knox County’s District Attorney General had promised to give a free bike to every student who achieved perfect attendance between mid-September and the end of the year.

    On Thursday, 34 students were recognized for achieving that goal, receiving free bikes and helmets to go with them. The incentive helped boost the school’s perfect attendance rate by 70 percent this year.

    At an assembly in the gym, Allen -- the county’s top prosecutor -- thanked students for working so hard to be in class. She said studies show that students who stay in school and get good grades are less likely to get in trouble with the law.

    “It’s a whole lot more fun to be in school than it is to be in the criminal justice system,” she added.

    This is the fourth year that Allen’s office has offered the incentive to a school, as part of a broader initiative to reduce truancy in Knox County.

    KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas attended the giveaway, and said he was also proud of students who didn’t quite achieve perfect attendance, “because I know you tried.”

    Thomas told the assembly that Allen does a good job of keeping the community safe. While she often has to work with people who have made bad choices, Thomas said, “she’s here today to deal with folks who’ve made some good choices.”

    The cost of bikes for the program is covered by private donations to the DA’s community fund, and does not include any taxpayer money. The free helmets were provided by the Epilepsy Foundation of East Tennessee.

    Third-grader Laurel Thompson was among the recipients, and said she was surprised to achieve perfect attendance.

    “I wasn’t really trying,” she explained. “I just went to school.”

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  • Lonsdale Students Celebrate
    New Playground

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/15/2019
    Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero poses with Lonsdale Elementary students on a new net climber that was recently installed at the school's playground.
    Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero poses with Lonsdale Elementary students on a new net climber that was recently installed at the school's playground.

    Nevaeh Phelan is usually dizzy when she steps off of the “spinner”, a new piece of playground equipment at Lonsdale Elementary.

    But the 5th-grader said she likes the apparatus -- a small platform that’s connected to a spinning pole -- because it fits her personality. “It’s out-of-the-box, and I’m the kind of person that likes things that are out-of-the-box,” she explained.

    On Wednesday, Phelan and other Lonsdale students got to celebrate the expansion of their playground, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony that featured educators and local dignitaries, along with community partners that made the project possible.

    Bill Malkes and his family purchased the spinner in memory of his daughter, while his company and foundation, GRIDSMART / GIVESMART, joined with Stowers Machinery Corporation and Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church to fund a large net climber and a giant mole hill climber, along with the remaining costs of the playground.

    The City of Knoxville provided 6,250 square feet of expanded space for the playground, which allowed the school to move its soccer field to a better location. Lonsdale students voted on the playground equipment they wanted, and chose the colors of the new equipment.

    At the celebration, KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas noted that the district and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs have both endorsed a capital plan that calls for construction of a new elementary school in Lonsdale. That plan is currently under consideration by Knox County Commission.

    The superintendent also expressed gratitude for the community partners who contributed money for the playground, and joked about his own priorities when he was an elementary student: “My favorite time of the day was recess and play time.”

    Kori Lautner, resource coordinator for the Great Schools Partnership -- which organized the project -- said donors who supported the playground are seizing the chance “to make sure kids in Knoxville have the very best opportunities made available to them, so they grow up to be excellent, contributing members of the community.”

    And while students were excited to show off the new equipment on Wednesday, it’s not just about having fun. Lonsdale principal Christopher Deal said he emphasizes to teachers the importance of recess to help students in the classroom.

    “The more they move out here, it’s inevitable that it impacts their academic achievement,” Deal said.

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  • Valedictorians Leave Mark,
    Look To Future

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/15/2019
    Valedictorians from Knox County High Schools recently gathered at the historic Blount Mansion for photos and a video. Pictured from left to right are Macy Hudson (L&N STEM), Logan Crawford (Karns), Erika Yang (Farragut), Bryson Gullett (Hardin Valley) and Trinity Mattress (Austin-East).
    Valedictorians from Knox County high schools recently gathered at the historic Blount Mansion for photos and a video. Pictured from left to right are Macy Hudson (L&N STEM), Logan Crawford (Karns), Erika Yang (Farragut), Bryson Gullett (Hardin Valley) and Trinity Mattress (Austin-East). (Photos / Justin Johnson)

    It’s the season of mortarboards and diplomas, a time when high school seniors across Knox County are being recognized for their achievements.

    Graduating from high school is a great accomplishment, but commencement is also a chance to honor students whose hard work and dedication helped them stand out from the crowd.

    The 16 valedictorians highlighted below include athletes, scientists, musicians and volunteers, and we’ve listed some (but not all!) of their high school achievements and future plans. In recent weeks, they gathered at the historic Blount Mansion, in downtown Knoxville, to shoot a video for Teacher Appreciation Week and to pose for photographs.

    Their success provides a glimpse into the enormous potential of the Class of 2019, and is a testament to the hard work and dedication of this year’s seniors and their teachers. Congratulations to all of this year’s graduates!

     

    Trinity Mattress, Austin-East valedictorian.
     

    Trinity Mattress / Austin-East

    Soccer team (co-captain); Dance Company (co-captain); Marching Band; Student Government Association; Project Grad; Young-Williams Animal Center (volunteer); Second Harvest Food Bank (volunteer).

    Trinity will attend the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and study pre-professional biology with a concentration in veterinary medicine.

     

    Dane Morgan, Bearden valedictorian.
     

    Dane Morgan / Bearden

    Ethics bowl team (co-captain); Orchestra; East Tennessee School Band and Orchestra Association Junior Clinic; Tennessee American Legion Boys State; Senior Committee.

    Dane plans to study political science and economics in his post-secondary career.

     

    Tristan Johnson, Career Magnet Academy valedictorian.
     

    Tristan Johnson / Career Magnet Academy

    Class president; Student Government Association; Cross Country; National Honor Society.

    Tristan will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and study veterinary medicine.

     

    Elliott Hooks, Carter valedictorian
     

    Elliott Hooks / Carter

    Soccer (captain); Band; Honors Band and Jazz Band; National Honor Society.

    Elliott will attend Carson-Newman University and study biology.

     

    Hanson Lam, Central valedictorian.
     

    Hanson Lam / Central

    Swim team; Soccer; Tennis; National Honor Society (president); Science Club (founder and president); East Tennessee Children’s Hospital Teen Leadership Council (volunteer); Knox County Youth Health Board (volunteer); AYSO Soccer assistant coach.

    Hanson will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and study engineering / computer science.

     

    Erika Yang, Farragut valedictorian.
     

    Erika Yang / Farragut

    Mu Alpha Theta (president); National French Honor Society (Treasurer); Science Olympiad; Oak Ridge National Laboratory intern.

    Erika will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and study applied math.

     

    Zoe Poormon, Fulton co-valedictorian.
     

    Zoe Poormon / Fulton (co-valedictorian)

    Soccer (captain); Top Athlete Award; National Honor Society; HOSA; Project Grad scholar.

    Zoe will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and be a pre-med major.

     

    Eleigha Wrancher, Fulton co-valedictorian
     

    Eleigha Wrancher / Fulton (co-valedictorian)

    Ethics Bowl (captain); Fulton ambassador; HOSA; National Honor Society; Project Grad scholar.

    Eleigha will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and be a pre-med major.

     

    Austin Zachary, Gibbs valedictorian
     

    Austin Zachary / Gibbs

    Mu Alpha Theta (president); Tennis; Band; National Honor Society; Spanish National Honor Society.

    Austin will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and study nuclear engineering.

     

    Harper Lee Kirby, Halls valedictorian.
     

    Harper Lee Kirby / Halls

    Cheerleading (2018 All American); Volunteer Girls State nominee; National Honor Society; Math Honor Society; Science Honor Society; French Honor Society; Race For The Cure (volunteer); Fantasy of Trees (volunteer).

    Harper will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and study biochemistry.

     

    Bryson Gullett, Hardin Valley valedictorian.
     

    Bryson Gullett / Hardin Valley

    RoHAWKtics robotics team; CodeTN coding contest; CyberPatriot cyber security competition.

    Bryson will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and study computer science.

     

    Logan Crawford, Karns valedictorian.
     

    Logan Crawford / Karns

    Key Club (president); Basketball; Knox County Honor Band; Indoor Drum Line; Mu Alpha Theta; National Honor Society (vice president); Youth Leadership Knoxville graduate.

    Logan will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and study engineering.

     

    Macy Hudson, L&N STEM valedictorian
     

    Macy Hudson / L&N STEM

    Ultimate Frisbee Team; Swim Team; Key Club; National Honor Society; Gryphon Guide; perfect score on ACT; Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding (volunteer).

    Macy will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and study chemistry and physics.

     

    Sarah Norris, Powell valedictorian.
     

    Sarah Norris / Powell

    National Honor Society (president); Scholars’ Bowl (captain); STEM Club (president); Student Government Association (president); Volunteer Girls State; ETEBA (volunteer intern).

    Sarah will attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and study aerospace engineering.

     

    Melody Hubbard, South-Doyle valedictorian.
     

    Melody Hubbard / South-Doyle

    “The Phoenix” magazine (co-editor); “OneTribe News” (director); Marching Band; Class President; National Honor Society; Student Council (president); Kiwanis Fresh Air Camp (volunteer).

    Melody will attend Columbia University and study humanities.

     

    Paul Nodit, West valedictorian.
     

    Paul “Gabi” Nodit / West

    Science Olympiad; Chess Club; Young Entrepreneur Academy; perfect score on ACT; Governor’s School for Science and Engineering.

    Paul will attend the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and study bio-medical engineering.

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  • West Student Honored
    By Boys & Girls Club

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/13/2019
    DeVore Solomon is a defensive lineman on the West High School football team who was recently honore as the Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year.
    DeVore Solomon is a defensive lineman on the West High School football team who was recently honored as the Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year.

    As a defensive lineman for the West High School football team, DeVore Solomon understands challenges.

    “You’re tired, you’re sweaty, you want to stop, you want to lay down, you want to drink water, but for your brothers you’ve got to keep going,” he said. “For the other people that you love, you’ve got to keep going.”

    That understanding of sacrifice and persistence has helped shape him, but Solomon began learning those lessons even before he got to West. The rising senior has been part of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley since the 3rd grade, and says that organization has helped make him a better person.

    Last month, Solomon was honored with the organization’s Buck and Linda Vaught Gift of Hope Award as the Youth of the Year.

    Bart McFadden, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs, said Solomon has a personality that lights up a room and has taken advantage of every program offered by the Club. “He’s gotten a comprehensive experience and through the course of that he’s been able to figure out what he’s good at, what he’s interested in … so ultimately he’ll be able to fulfill his potential and find his niche in the world,” said McFadden.

    Solomon said he started attending Club activities at the urging of his mother, who felt it would provide a safe and positive environment. Through the Club he met several mentors who were willing to invest in him, whether that meant tough love or spiritual instruction.

    “They just saw that I could be a better person,” he said.

    Among other things, Solomon has participated in the Club’s YouthForce program, which connects teens with local businesses for training and development, and in the Pipeline program, which has coordinated college visits to campuses including East Tennessee State, Clemson and Lincoln Memorial.

    Solomon said he’s learned the importance of love, support and hustle through the Club, and that his mentors have always inspired participants to work hard.

    “They don’t praise talent,” he said. “You can have tons and tons of talent, you can be talented at whatever it is you’re trying to do, write music, play sports, schoolwork … But they praise effort. Because at the end of the day, that’s what life is based on when it comes to success, is how much effort you put in.”

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  • South Knoxville Girls
    Get Empowerment Message

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/10/2019
    Eleanor Efurd, a 3rd-grader at South Knox Elementary, participated in a Girls Empowerment Lunch on May 9, 2019.
    Eleanor Efurd, a 3rd-grader at South Knoxville Elementary School, participated in a Girls Empowerment Lunch on May 9, 2019.

    An anchor, an aerospace engineer and a senator were among the visitors to South Knoxville Elementary School on Thursday, as part of an event that aimed to inspire 3rd- and 4th-grade girls.

    The Girls Empowerment Lunch was organized by principal Tanna Nicely, who said the idea was to help students think about how to prepare for their future.

    “I thought it was important for the girls to have the opportunity to talk with leaders in our community that are female,” the principal said.

    To that end, more than 20 women talked about their lives and careers, and provided a glimpse at what’s possible for students.

    Participants included WBIR-TV anchor Robin Wilhoit, who recalled her trip to the White House with Nicely in 2013 as part of a school gardening event with Michelle Obama; Susanna Hogg, who recently earned her aerospace engineering degree and will work on a rocket that carries astronauts to the International Space Station; and state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey.

    Katharine Pearson Criss, a senior fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies, told students about her 5th-grade teacher, who had photos of U.S. presidents hanging on the classroom wall.

    Pearson Criss recalled that one day, the teacher added a woman's picture to the wall and told girls there was no reason they couldn’t grow up to be President. “Don’t ever forget that picture on the wall,” she said. “If you want to be president, you can.”

    Speakers at the event represented a broad range of career choices in the private and public sectors, including elected officials such as Massey and Knox County Board of Education member Kristi Kristy. The senator told girls it’s important to identify their strengths, and to be the best at whatever they do.

    “I tell people, ‘Don’t vote for me because I’m a woman. Vote for me because you think I’m doing the best job,’” she said.

    While a broad array of careers was represented, they didn’t cover the entire range of possibilities.

    Eleanor Efurd, a 3rd-grader at South Knoxville Elementary, said she wants to be a dog trainer, a gem miner or a member of a rock band.

    “I liked it when the lady said that I can do anything I want to do,” she added.

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  • High School Graduation
    Ceremonies Begin On May 14

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/10/2019
    Students celebrate graduation at Thompson-Boling Arena.
     

    Graduation ceremonies for Knox County’s 16 high schools will take place next week. The dates and times of each ceremony are listed below. All graduations will take place at Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus (1600 Phillip Fulmer Way).

    Tuesday, May 14

    Central, 5:30 p.m.

    South-Doyle, 8 p.m.

    Wednesday, May 15

    Career Magnet Academy, 3 p.m.

    Halls, 5:30 p.m.

    Gibbs, 8 p.m.

    Thursday, May 16

    L&N STEM Academy, 3 p.m.

    Austin-East, 5:30 p.m.

    Hardin Valley Academy, 8 p.m.

    Friday, May 17

    Dr. Paul Kelley Academy, 3 p.m.

    West, 5:30 p.m.

    Bearden, 8 p.m.

    Saturday, May 18

    Powell, 9 a.m.

    Carter, 11:30 a.m.

    Fulton, 2 p.m.

    Karns, 4:30 p.m.

    Farragut, 7:30 p.m.

    As multiple ceremonies are happening each day, parking may be difficult and some distance from the arena. Anyone attending graduation should allow plenty of time to park and find their seats before the ceremony begins.

    In order to provide appropriate security measures and a consistent policy for events at Thompson-Boling Arena, the University of Tennessee will utilize metal detectors and institute the same Clear Bag Policy currently in place for all athletic events, concerts and special events. Details on that policy are available at the UT Athletics website.

    Commencement for the Knoxville Adaptive Education Center will be at 10 a.m. on May 14, at KAEC. Commencement for the Ridgedale School will be at 1:30 p.m. on May 14, at Ridgedale.

    Knox County High School commencements are available for streaming live online at www.knoxgrads.com, and copies of specific graduation ceremonies may be purchased.

     

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  • In Times Of Need, Teachers
    Find Support At School

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/6/2019
    Karen Casteel, a music teacher at Halls Middle School, sits in the lobby with her son, Ethan.
    Karen Casteel, a music teacher at Halls Middle School, sits in the lobby with her son, Ethan.

    Several years ago, Karen Casteel’s husband was diagnosed with a neurological disease that has left him unable to walk or speak clearly.

    The diagnosis was heartbreaking, but last summer the family received more terrible news when Casteel -- a music teacher at Halls Middle School -- was diagnosed with breast cancer.

    In the intervening months, Casteel continued teaching between chemotherapy treatments but took most of the spring semester off while recovering from surgery.

    Through it all, her fellow teachers and school employees at Halls Middle and other schools have organized fundraisers to support her husband’s nursing home care; offered child care during her recovery; and prepared meals for the family.

    Casteel said the support has been overwhelming. “I feel like God orchestrated it so that all the little pieces that I needed fell into place by people’s generosity and willingness to help,” she said.

    May 5-11 is Teacher Appreciation Week, an opportunity for students and parents to express their gratitude for all the work that happens in the classroom.

    But for teachers who have suffered tragedies or challenges, it’s also a chance to remember the ways that their own colleagues have helped carry them through the hard times.

    Brandon White is a teacher and administrator at Karns Middle School and his wife, Qwynn, is a 5th-grade teacher at Gibbs Elementary who previously worked at Halls Middle School.

    In November of 2017, the couple’s two-year-old daughter, Meris, was diagnosed with Alexander disease, an extremely rare nervous system disorder that has left her unable to talk or walk. White said the couple has made it a mission to raise awareness about the disease which, according to the National Institutes of Health, is fatal by the age of 6 for most children diagnosed as infants.

    White said colleagues at the schools where they work have generously helped with fundraisers and emotional support, and that effort has even spread to other schools.

    On Rare Disease Day in February of 2018, White posted a picture on Twitter that showed employees from Karns Middle, Halls Middle, South-Doyle Middle and Halls High wearing blue shirts in support of Meris. He said employees at Powell Middle and West Valley Middle also sent pictures, and that other schools had also been talking about the effort.

    Qwynn White moved to Gibbs Elementary this school year, and Meris is now a pre-K student at that school. White said employees at Gibbs embraced her immediately: “As educators, that’s what we want to see every day. And we see it with our own child now, it’s hard to put into words really.”

    Brandon White tweeted this photo collage on Rare Disease Day in February of 2018. It shows teachers and staff from several KCS schools wearing blue shirts in support of his daughter, Meris. Brandon and Qwynn White are pictured with their daughter on the bottom row.
    Brandon White tweeted this photo collage on Rare Disease Day in February of 2018. It shows teachers and staff from several KCS schools wearing blue shirts in support of his daughter, Meris. Brandon and Qwynn White are pictured with their daughter on the bottom row.

    While fundraisers often draw the most attention, support from co-workers also takes other forms.

    Martha Sileno is a math teacher at Holston Middle School whose son, Noah, was diagnosed in July of 2018 with B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

    The first person Sileno called was Principal Katie Lutton, because Sileno knew how hard it would be to find a math teacher to take her place. Sileno ended up missing the entire school year, but said her principal was “very, very empathetic” and promised that the school would help in any way the family needed.

    In addition, she said, coworkers on their own time helped re-arrange her classroom for a substitute, and made sure Sileno’s classroom items were stored.

    “They never once made me feel like I was letting them down or letting the kids down,” Sileno said of her colleagues. “They never made me feel like I wasn’t going to be able to come back to my school the following year … Their whole focus the whole time has been getting Noah better, and that took a lot of the pressure off.”

    Four-year-old Noah is now in remission, although his treatments will continue until November of 2021. Since his diagnosis, Sileno said employees throughout the building helped with fundraisers and blood donations, including some who had never donated blood before. She said the community support shows that Holston is “an amazing school.”

    “Everybody came together,” she added. “It wasn’t just one individual -- from administration to teachers to cafeteria workers, anybody in the building came together for Noah … Whatever I needed, they were willing to do.”

    Martha Sileno and her son, Noah, sit at Holston Middle School.
    Martha Sileno and her son, Noah, sit at Holston Middle School on a recent morning.
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  • Mayor's Budget Supports
    Knox County Schools

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 4/30/2019
    Students walking into Gibbs Middle School on the first day of school.
    Photo credit / Jon Guymon

    Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs on Wednesday proposed a budget that would provide KCS teachers and classified staff with an amount equivalent to a 3.5 percent raise and provide funding to build three new elementary schools.

    The mayor’s spending proposal was unveiled Wednesday morning in a speech at Central High School.

    Speaking to elected officials, community leaders and other dignitaries, Jacobs outlined a spending plan that would add $22.1 million to the General Purpose School Fund, including money to support kindergarten interventions and a new literacy initiative.

    In addition, a five-year capital plan calls for replacing existing school buildings at Lonsdale Elementary and Adrian Burnett Elementary, and construction of a new elementary school in Northwest Knox County. The five-year capital plan would also fund additions to Brickey-McCloud Elementary and Sterchi Elementary.

    In his speech, Jacobs cited former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a “shining city on a hill”, and asked “Why can’t Knox County be that shining city within America?”

    To do that, he said, the county must be committed to priorities that include building “an education system that provides students with the tools they need to be successful in whatever avenue they choose, whether it’s Liberal Arts, STEAM education or the trades.”

    The budget proposal echoes priorities approved by the Knox County Board of Education, and school officials praised Jacobs for his commitment to funding education.

    “Mayor Jacobs and his team have worked closely with KCS, and we are grateful for their strong support of public education,” said Superintendent Bob Thomas. “Providing a 3.5 percent raise for  teachers and other district employees is a crucial step to attract and retain outstanding educators, and we’re very grateful for the county’s support of much-needed capital improvements within the district.”

    The spending proposal will now be considered by the Knox County Commission.

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  • TA's Equipped To Lead
    At Richard Yoakley

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 4/29/2019
    Janice Maples, a teaching assistant at Richard Yoakley School, says professional learning communities provide a chance to learn from one another.
    Janice Maples, a teaching assistant at Richard Yoakley School, says professional learning communities provide TA's with a chance to learn from one another.

    On a recent morning at the Richard Yoakley School, teaching assistants gathered in the library for a twice-a-month meeting.

    Yoakley is a transition school for students who have not succeeded at their base school, and is aimed at helping them re-integrate into a traditional classroom.

    On this occasion, the TA’s were discussing current and former students, including one who is currently enrolled at Yoakley. The group brainstormed support strategies for the student, and eventually one TA offered a simple piece of advice: “He loves hugs.”

    The comment highlighted the ways that Yoakley emphasizes personal connections with its students, and the ways that school administrators are working to empower TAs as leaders.

    The library gathering was a meeting known as a professional learning community, or PLC. While many schools use PLCs to provide teachers with professional development and training, Yoakley for the last two years has also offered them to TAs, an idea started by Program Facilitator Rick Lawson. More recently, the school has empowered TAs themselves to lead the groups.

    Principal Seth Smith said the work of teaching assistants is vital, and that he wants every staff member to play a leadership role at the school. “I want people that lead, that know what they’re doing, and have the confidence and also the information they need to implement that on a daily basis,” Smith said.

    To that end, TAs have been instrumental in providing ideas for the school’s social skills curriculum, including development of a contest in which students decorate classroom doors according to a weekly theme.

    At another recent meeting, Transition Coordinator Pete Buckner reported on a student who had left Yoakley and returned to their base school. A teaching assistant suggested that Yoakley staffers should sign a card that Buckner could deliver to the student during a follow-up visit.

    In an interview, Buckner said the student became emotional when he received the card. “I was overwhelmed by the staff members in that PLC to come up with that idea,” Buckner added. “They’re always trying to find ways to go above and beyond for our students.”

    One of the challenges at the alternative school is to forge connections with students, while at the same time preparing them for success at a traditional high school.

    Kim Maples, a special education teacher at Yoakley, was previously a TA at Fulton High School and said in that role she tried to serve as a complement to the teacher. Sometimes that meant serving as an authority figure, while at other times it meant taking a more nurturing approach.

    “You kind of just go off the teacher’s vibe,” she said. “Anything you can do to help that teacher’s day with the students go better, you jump in and you do it.”

    In fact, several teachers at Yoakley began their education careers as teaching assistants. Buckner, the Transition Coordinator, was a TA until four years ago, and credited the leadership at Yoakley with encouraging him to take the steps to move into a certified position.

    Janice Maples works with special education students and has been a TA at Yoakley for six years. She said the PLC meetings give TAs a chance to vent, to share and to teach, adding that “when we leave we usually feel better, because sometimes we just need somebody to listen.”

    Janice Maples said it’s hard not to get attached to students, and that she worries when she hears a news story about a tragedy involving a young person, because she is concerned it might be one of her students.

    But she said the encouraging stories are students who are able to turn their lives around, even if they were heading down the wrong path.

    Asked how Yoakley supports those success stories, Janice Maples said she tells students that she cares about them like they were her own: “Even though I’m not your mom, I’m not your dad, I care about you, so no matter how many walls you build up I’m going to tear them down, because I’m not going anywhere.”

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