Project Search Helps Students
Develop Job SkillsPosted by JOSH FLORY on 5/18/2021
A group of Knox County students enjoyed special recognition this month during a graduation ceremony at Parkwest Medical Center.
Over the last two years, Parkwest has teamed up with Knox County Schools and Sertoma of Knoxville on Project SEARCH, a program that provides internships to high school students with disabilities, with the ultimate goal of preparing them for post-secondary employment.
At a ceremony on May 14, the program celebrated a graduating class of nine interns who had worked in departments throughout the hospital, including Housekeeping, Surgery, Food Prep, and the Dish Room.
The graduates included Alex Webb, a Halls High School student who attended the ceremony with his parents, Doyle and Amy Webb.
Amy Webb, a teacher at Adrian Burnett Elementary, said Alex learned a variety of skills that will help him in the future, and became more independent while learning about his strengths and weaknesses.
“He’s very confident now that he can work out in the workforce and do different tasks,” Webb said.
Project SEARCH has been in place for two years at Parkwest, although the first year was partly interrupted by COVID-19. Participating students submit applications in the January or February before their exit year, followed by a skills assessment and parent interview.
Michelle Pittman, of the Knox County Schools Special Education Department, said the program is slated to include 10 students next year, and organizers are hoping that it will eventually grow to more participants.
While the graduates learned valuable skills from working at the hospital, a steady stream of employees who stopped by before the ceremony began highlighted the friendships that were also created.
In a speech to graduates and their families, Parkwest President and Chief Administrative Officer Neil Heatherly acknowledged a ripple effect from Project Search, saying that while he initially understood the program’s benefits, “I was nowhere close to fully … realizing the impact these young men and women have had on this entire hospital.”
Powell High student Robert “Jake” Elliott was another graduate recognized at the ceremony. His mother, Candy, said her son has always had a good attitude, but Project SEARCH helped him become more independent.
“He gets up, gets ready and wakes us up to bring him to work at 6:00,” she said.
For his part, Jake Elliott said he cleaned pots and pans and made up bed rolls, but particularly enjoyed working in the cafeteria: “It was awesome.”
Dancers Earn Double Titles
In National CompetitionPosted by JOSH FLORY on 5/14/2021
The pandemic may have changed the format, but it couldn’t stop the West Valley Middle School dance team from earning two national championships this spring.
Dancers at West Valley took top honors in both the Jazz and Pom categories of the Universal Dance Association’s Junior High virtual competition last month.
The event marked the first time that West Valley has won two national championships in a single year, and it also highlighted the success of a related program. Many dancers at West Valley go on to attend Bearden High School, which also won championships in Large Varsity Pom and Large Varsity Game Day at this year’s virtual competition.
West Valley is led by school sponsor Beth Abee, an 8th-grade English teacher, and coach Amanda Varnes, who said the students showed tremendous growth during a challenging season.
Tryouts were held last spring, just days before COVID-19 closed down school activities. Varnes said the team couldn’t practice until August, but that helped provide a sense of urgency for them -- “Any practice that we had all together, we made the most of it,” she said.
While the national championships are typically held in Orlando, West Valley this season competed in a virtual format in which they submitted videotaped performances for judges to review.
The format meant that dancers often found themselves repeating their performance, trying to get a competition submission that was as close to perfect as possible. “It was a little more exhausting than what we were used to,” Varnes said.
7th-grader Kelsi Wright said COVID-19 made the season more difficult at first, because it limited the team’s ability to perform. But ultimately, she said, “I think it made us stronger.”
And while it was a year of transition in many ways, West Valley benefited from stability at the top.
Abee has sponsored and Varnes has coached the team for 17 years, and Varnes herself is a former West Valley student who was part of the school’s first dance team in 1999.
This year’s team had 13 new members, but 7th-grader Abigail Standifer said everyone was committed to achieving the same goal. Even so, they knew that winning a national championship -- let alone two -- wasn’t guaranteed.
“I was super-excited and kind of shocked,” Standifer said, “because the [other] teams were really good.”
Green Student Is State Finalist
For STEM ContestPosted by JOSHUA FLORY on 4/28/2021
When 4th-grader Alayah Sykes learned about entrepreneurship in the Design Lab at Green Magnet Academy, she loved the idea of starting a jewelry business and marketing her designs.
There was just one problem. “I’m only 9 years old and I have a long way to go before I’m an adult,” she said. “And I don’t want to wait.”
That can-do spirit prompted Sykes to launch a start-up, and helped her gain recognition in a recent competition that promotes entrepreneurship and innovation.
Sykes and dozens of classmates participated in the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network’s Statewide Design Challenge, which encourages students to create a business plan for a social enterprise, which donates a portion of its profits to community improvement.
The effort was led by Tiffany Collins, the K-5 design lab teacher at Green Magnet. Collins said the idea is to expose students to careers in the STEAM field -- Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math -- while also inspiring them to pursue post-secondary education or entrepreneurship.
Collins said students at Green have been reading a book about entrepreneurship, and applied the steps of the engineering design process -- “Ask”, “Imagine”, “Plan”, “Create” and “Improve” -- in creating their business plan and pitch.
As part of the competition, students created a business plan along with logos, marketing materials and a video pitch. Using a Shark Tank approach, a panel of local judges asked questions and made suggestions, and the students used that feedback to refine their plans, before submitting them to the competition.
Sykes pitched a plan for “Jewels Matter”, a design business selling hand-crafted bracelets, necklaces, earrings and ankle bracelets. Part of her business plan is to donate a portion of her profits to Second Harvest Food Bank, and her pitch was tapped as a statewide finalist.
Magnet facilitator Sandy Morris said that by creating a business plan, presenting it to judges and then refining it based on feedback, students are embracing one of the most important aspects of the Engineering Design process. And that process, Morris added, will go a long way toward building confidence in students as they advance in their academic career.
As for Sykes, the 4th-grader didn’t stop with the business plan. In recent weeks, she moved forward to create and sell jewelry, saying that more than 30 orders came in from her father’s co-workers, while other customers included Collins herself.
Sykes said some of her favorite products are seasonal designs -- such as Christmas jewelry -- and that she is planning a future expansion into jewelry for pets.
And at a time when COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on the community, she said jewelry is something that can provide a boost to their spirit.
“We all need color in us right now,” she said. “Because most people, they’re just feeling gray … They forget about their hearts right now.”
A-E Students Earn Spot
In National CompetitionPosted by JOSH FLORY on 3/26/2021
It may be Oscar season in Hollywood, but a group of students at Austin-East Magnet High School has already achieved a dramatic milestone.
Four theater students at A-E recently learned that they had qualified for the National Speech and Debate Association’s tournament in June, marking the first time the school had qualified for nationals.
Brothers Ryan and LoRen Seagrave performed a one-act play called “Sticks and Stones”, while Jackson Ahern and Rory Longmire performed a play called “Jerry Finnegan’s Sister.”
Because of COVID-19, the duets were filmed using split screens and the actors were not allowed to appear in the same shot. Doug James, a theater teacher at A-E and the coach of the team, said the duet format is helpful because it gives extensive experience to students, compared to a traditional theater production in which a small number of students may have most of the speaking roles.
By allowing students to perform in duets, he said, they get specialized training that can help lead to acceptance into a college program.
Austin-East is a magnet school with a performing arts focus, and James said the success in reaching the national tournament highlights the talent of the school’s students.
“Our kids are creative and incredible and need to be celebrated,” he added.
LoRen Seagrave, a senior at Austin-East who is planning to study acting and theater at the University of Tennessee, hopes to make a career out of performing. He said it was interesting to play opposite his brother in “Sticks and Stones”, because they instinctively knew how to ramp up the tension in an argument.
“So we basically just play off of each other with our words a lot to escalate the scene or in fights, when we argue during the scene,” he said. “It’s really fascinating how we can basically push the other characters’ buttons to make them have a reaction.”
Even for students who don’t go on to a career on the stage, theater has provided helpful life skills.
Longmire, a senior at Austin-East, said Mr. James has helped her with strategies for job interviews and resume-writing, adding that “He helps teach people how to … have conversations in tense moments.”
Longmire said she has considered going into voice acting after high school, and was thrilled to make the national competition of the NSDA.
The thing she loves about theater, she added, is that “it’s just a space where you can be yourself. You can go in there and have fun, while also doing pieces and pretending to be someone else. But you can also be yourself at the same time.”
Senior Captains Set The Tone
For Bearden BasketballPosted by JOSH FLORY on 3/4/2021
At the start of this school year, members of the Bearden High girls basketball team didn’t know whether they would get to play because of COVID-19.
But once their season tipped off, a trio of senior captains has led the Bulldogs on a remarkable run that will culminate in a state tournament appearance next week.
On Wednesday, the Bulldogs defeated Maryville to win the 2-AAA region tournament and extend their record to 28-1. That dominant run included a defeat of Ensworth in February, a victory that ended a 60-game winning streak for the Nashville powerhouse.
Coach Justin Underwood said senior captains Reagan Ruth, Zneyah McLaughlin and Natalie Rice set the tone for the program, and noted that each of them had an older sibling that played basketball for Bearden.
“Our seniors understand the expectations of leading our program. They do a fantastic job being an encourager and serving others,” Underwood said.
For basketball teams, one of the most obvious impacts from COVID has been the significant restrictions on the number of fans who can attend games this year.
Ruth said the lack of fans has made it even more important for team leaders to be a vocal presence, both on the court and on the bench.
“I like to pick up the team, encourage them,” she said. “When I’m on the bench, (I) just hype people up. The energy we bring on the bench, the people on the court really feed off of us … Because we can’t have a crowd this year, it’s hard to bring the energy.”
The win over Ensworth last month was an important marker for the team, and McLaughlin said it proved the Bulldogs can beat anyone if they put their mind to it.
The senior guard said this year’s team is special because of their willingness to work for their coaches, teammates and families. She also praised Underwood’s leadership, saying he has taught her the importance of being able to accept coaching.
“Because everything’s not always going to go well,” she added. “You need to acknowledge the good things when you’re in a position of leadership, but you also need to acknowledge what you can work on and what you can get better at.”
And while the pandemic has presented unexpected obstacles, it may also have produced a stronger bond within the team.
Rice said the Bulldogs have made a point to not worry about off-the-court distractions, but instead to just focus on achieving their goals together.
“I like playing for Bearden because I think the team is really a family,” she said. “We all just care about each other so much and every girl on this team is like a sister to me.”
This story is part of a series highlighting student leaders within KCS. Other articles in the series profiled former Board of Education student representative Noah Kelley, former West High School football co-captain Tyrell Ragland, and Carter High School drum majors Jadejsha Arnold and Ploomie Messer.
Legacy Parks Donates
"Freedom Chair" To DogwoodPosted by JOSH FLORY on 2/26/2021
A gift from the Legacy Parks Foundation will help students at Dogwood Elementary take advantage of their school's outdoor classrooms and trail.
On Thursday, the Foundation presented the school with a GRIT Freedom Chair, a child-sized adaptive wheelchair that includes a hand-powered drive train and is designed for use in outdoor spaces.
Carly Pearson, a local handcycling athlete and advocate for people with disabilities, demonstrated a full-size version of the chair at Dogwood on Thursday morning, and said it provides a resource for more people to experience the outdoors.
“We want to be able to make (every child) feel fully included,” Pearson said. “So the way to do that is to at least provide the equipment so we can get the entire class outside.”
The chair was purchased by Legacy Parks Foundation, which is also raising money to help make the nature trail behind the school into an adaptive, all-access route.
The Mac Post Arboretum is located behind Dogwood, and includes a walking trail, markers for dozens of different tree species and six outdoor classrooms.
Lizzy Revans, a K-5 special education teacher, said the Freedom Chair will help students easily access the Dogwood trail, even if they previously were not able to do so.
"It's an amazing thing, and we can't wait (to use it)," she added.
To Be Held At High SchoolsPosted by JOSH FLORY on 2/19/2021
On Thursday evening, Feb. 18, Superintendent Bob Thomas sent the following message to Class of 2021 families about this year’s graduation ceremonies:
Dear KCS families,
Commencement season is approaching, and I wanted to share some important information about how we will celebrate the Class of 2021.
Because of the ongoing impact of COVID-19, we have decided to host in-person graduation ceremonies at our high school campuses, as we did last year. In most cases, these ceremonies will be held on each school’s football field, and the overall schedule can be found at this link.
Our students, especially our seniors, have endured so many challenges and disruptions, but we are committed to providing them with a graduation they will remember. Last year’s ceremonies were a huge success and we are confident that outdoor celebrations will once again allow our graduates to be honored and recognized for their tremendous achievements, while also protecting the safety of our school communities.
Graduation ceremonies will be held on May 27 and June 1-8, avoiding Memorial Day weekend. Rain dates will be scheduled on June 10-12. Each graduate will be provided tickets for up to six guests and ceremonies will also be live-streamed, with archived videos available for viewing later. COVID-19 protocols will remain in place, including limited capacity, social distancing and face covering requirements.
While these dates represent a change from our traditional calendar, we do not believe it is feasible to hold on-campus ceremonies while high school students are attending class and completing exams. Some of the factors that were considered in our scheduling decision included:
• It would be difficult to have graduation while school is still in session, with AP testing occurring and staff finalizing grades and working on master schedules.
• We would not be able to hold multiple graduations during the day while school is in session.
• The current attendance restrictions in place at Thompson-Boling Arena would likely mean fewer guests can attend.
• The vendor that supplied the stages and chairs last year has told us that due to their scheduling demands it would be difficult to work with us during the month of May.
• By having graduation after school has ended, students would have additional days to recover credits that may allow them to fulfill graduation requirements.
We are excited to host these special events, and your student’s school will be sharing more details with you soon.
Thank you again for your understanding and patience, and we look forward to celebrating with you!
Diverse Curriculum Provides
"Windows And Mirrors" For StudentsPosted by JOSH FLORY on 2/3/2021
On a recent afternoon, Hardin Valley Elementary STEM teacher Jessica Everitt was talking about computer coding.
In between a video that featured a dancing robot and a hands-on assignment in which students practiced with tiny machines called Ozobots, Everitt highlighted an African-American programmer named Lyndsey Scott, who is famous not only for designing mobile apps but also because she is a fashion model.
Everitt told her students that Scott is fluent in computer languages including C++, Java and Python, adding that “she started programming at the age of 12.”
As schools across Knox County celebrate Black History Month, students will learn about pioneering African-American scientists, civil rights leaders and artists. But Everitt and other educators are also working to ensure that Black history and achievement are woven into the district’s curriculum throughout the year.
Shannon Jackson, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning, said there is strong evidence highlighting the importance of “windows and mirrors” for helping students engage with the material they’re learning.
Jackson said an effective curriculum has mirrors that allow students to see themselves reflected in topics like literature, history and science, but also provides windows into cultures that may be less familiar.
“When students feel included in the curriculum, they’re more likely to achieve,” Jackson said. “Even more than that, our country’s story is one of many cultures coming together with lots of different, rich contributions. And it’s important for students to both see the contributions of the people they identify with but also to recognize the contributions of other cultures.”
In recent years, several KCS schools have implemented an ELA curriculum called “Wit and Wisdom”, which aims to provide students with books that inspire a passion for reading and writing.
Sarah Lyle, an 8th-grade ELA teacher at Vine Middle Magnet School, said the curriculum elevates the voices of Black novelists, poets and speakers, in a way that encourages all of her students to share their own personal stories.
In fact, one of the writers highlighted early in the middle-school curriculum is Nikki Giovanni, the Black poet and writer who was born in Knoxville and attended Austin High School. Lyle said students read Giovanni poems including “A Poem for My Librarian, Mrs. Long”, which references Knoxville landmarks like Gay Street and the JFG Coffee sign.
Her work, Lyle said, is “super-relevant” to students from Knoxville, but “no matter who you are or where you live Nikki Giovanni is phenomenal … That’s really impactful for our students.”
In some cases, the "windows and mirrors" approach results in classes devoted specifically to exploring the American story through the lens of a particular culture.
Last semester, Brandon O’Neill taught an elective course on African-American history at Fulton High School, and this semester he is teaching a course on Latinx History.
O’Neill said that compared to a traditional history course, the elective course provides more time to look at leaders and stories that may not be as familiar. Instead of stopping with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X when teaching about the Civil Rights Movement, for example, students can read about John Lewis, Diane Nash and Stokely Carmichael.
The idea, he said, is to help students “see the world and to see history not just through their own eyes but through others’ eyes. You want to activate … the empathy that people have.”
Paris Banks, a junior at Fulton, took the African-American History class and said she learned things she hadn’t known previously, including how the Mexican-American War of the 1840’s affected the national divisions that eventually led to the Civil War.
Fulton is one of Knox County’s most diverse high schools, and Banks said that even for students who are not African-American, O’Neill’s class is important for helping understand Black history. “I just think that class is a really good class and I highly recommend it for any and every student,” she said.
Knox County teachers have benefited from the expertise of community leaders and historians who have provided support to enrich the district’s curriculum.
Partners including Rev. Reneé Kesler, president of The Beck Cultural Exchange Center; Jack Neely, executive director of the Knoxville History Project; and scholars from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Department of History have provided ongoing professional development that helps teachers to explore the rich diversity of American history.
Understanding Black history can also help students engage with present-day challenges and struggles. Derek Griffin, a Social Studies teacher at L&N STEM Academy, said that during a history class last semester his students learned about the “Red Summer” of 1919, when a wave of violence targeted Black citizens in cities across the country.
Griffin said that material led his students to draw comparisons with modern-day events, and “see things that have changed (and) how this is different, but potentially some of the problems that we’re still dealing with.”
Griffin, who serves on the KCS Minority Advisory Council, teaches a course on African-American History for the QuEST virtual learning program, as well as U.S. History courses at L&N.
In his U.S. History courses, Griffin said he’s made an effort to broaden the representation of the people who are studied. If his class is talking about 19th Century inventors, for example, he has worked to include discussions of African-Americans like George Washington Carver and Madam C.J. Walker alongside information about Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla.
At the same time, he was quick to point out that the goal is not to create a separate history for different groups of people, especially at a time when there is already cultural division.
“I think if students are taught the history together, they can recognize that we are one community and not a separate society,” he said.
"Virtual Enterprises" Program Offers Business ExperiencePosted by JOSHUA FLORY on 1/14/2021
Students at Bearden High School have created a video game to promote kindness and friendship, and they’re getting hands-on business experience in the process.
The effort is part of the “Virtual Enterprises” program, a national competition in which students create, refine and implement a business plan.
The VE Program is the capstone course for Bearden’s business and marketing classes, and participants have to fill out job applications and go through an interview process in order to participate.
Jami Aylor, a business marketing teacher and the Virtual Enterprise facilitator at BHS, said the program is reflective of life in the working world and helps students develop accountability and confidence.
“They realize that each of them has an integral piece and each of them has a responsibility, and if you drop the ball it affects the others in the classroom,” Aylor said.
This year, the school’s VE team has developed a video game called “Nakama”, and built out marketing, accounting, technology and other functions to support its launch.
Lily Nagdeman, a senior who is the company’s chief creative officer, said game participants start in a colorless world and are able to fill in colors by doing acts of kindness.
She said the Virtual Enterprises program encourages students to pursue a venture that has a positive outcome in mind, and that the goal of Nakama was to spread positivity.
“COVID-19 has really impacted us,” Nagdeman said of her classmates. “As a company, every employee here has had some form of negative experience with the pandemic. So sparking kindness is really one of the best gifts you can give right now.”
Last month, Nagdeman led the team’s submission in the VE branding competition, and Bearden placed in the Top 10 percent among 500 firms across the country.
Next week, BHS will participate in a verbal presentation and Q-and-A session featuring judges from the corporate world, one of several steps that will determine their final ranking. While that portion of the competition would normally happen at a trade show-style event, this year’s presentation will be done virtually because of the pandemic.
Constance Paris, a senior who is the company’s CEO, said the biggest challenge has been adjusting to the virtual platform, although she said that because her classmates all have Chromebooks -- provided through the district’s 1:1 initiative -- it has been easier to distribute the game.
Paris, who is planning to study business in college, said she has learned that leadership is less about telling people what to do than about building an effective team.
“Finance has to work closely with marketing. HR has to work closely with everyone,” Paris said. “And you can’t do that if people don’t know how to talk to each other, don’t know what each department needs … We’ve been working a lot on communication.”
The program also connects students with mentors. Aylor, the program facilitator, said local business leaders providing guidance and feedback include restaurateur Randy Burleson; Kevin Anderson, of Anderson Controls; and Jennifer Reynolds, of Baxter Properties.
Students also get the chance to lead, and to make mistakes. Aylor said she had to learn how to step back and let students take charge, which was both difficult and rewarding.
“That’s kind of my job, is to hold them accountable and to support them and to encourage them,” she said. “And sometimes they’re going to fail but it also gives them confidence so they’re not failing in life when they leave here.”
Dual Enrollment Anatomy Course
Is Being ExpandedPosted by JOSH FLORY on 12/16/2020
Students from four Knox County high schools got a unique chance to learn about the human body in recent months -- and that opportunity will be expanded in the spring.
The KCS Department of Career Technical Education partnered with Lincoln Memorial University during the fall semester to offer a dual enrollment anatomy course that included work with donor bodies in laboratories on the university’s Cogdill Road campus.
The pilot program was launched this fall with nearly 30 students from Bearden High School, Farragut High School, Karns High School and Hardin Valley Academy. Participating students went to Farragut High School for lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays, and on Fridays worked with donor bodies. While some activities were moved to virtual instruction during the semester, students were able to study the donors’ musculature, spinal cords and brains during in-person lab sessions.
Mary Tasket, a senior at Bearden High School, said she plans to study biomedical engineering and possibly move into pre-med studies, and had previously taken an anatomy course at BHS. But she said the previous class used a textbook to study the material, and didn’t provide the same level of depth.
“It makes so much more sense compared to just looking at a diagram, actually seeing it and how everything fits together,” Tasket said. “It just makes more sense and everything clicks.”
During the spring semester, the opportunity will be expanded to include all KCS high schools. Participating students will attend the Monday and Wednesday classes virtually, and visit LMU’s West Knoxville campus on Fridays for lab sessions. All classes are held from 7:30 to 9 a.m.
The deadline to enroll is 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 18. Students who are interested should contact Lindsay Haywood, LMU Director of Enrollment Services, by sending an email to Lindsay.Haywood@lmunet.edu.
Holly Kelly, who teaches anatomy and physiology at Farragut High School, helped coordinate the class during the fall semester, and said it has been beneficial for students who are interested in medical school or another health sciences career, such as physical therapy.
In particular, Kelly said the opportunity to work with donors has been a strong draw for students: “The ‘aha moments’ really come to life when they get to the lab,” she said, adding that students have been very respectful and appreciative.
The class also provides a chance to get a head start on college credits, with participating students getting undergraduate credit if they choose to enroll at LMU. The class is free, although there will be a cost for one or two books and students must purchase vinyl gloves. Scrubs are also recommended, although not required, and can be purchased from Lambert’s Health Care at a 30% discount.
Jody Goins, Vice President and Dean for Enrollment and Student Affairs at LMU, said the university is planning to build out a Health Science Institute that would offer multiple dual enrollment opportunities.
The broader goal, he said, is to provide students with career paths and increase their socio-economic mobility, which is especially important as the pandemic has taken an economic toll.
“We were talking about offering it free of charge before the onset of COVID-19,” Goins said of the planned institute. “But obviously with the onset of COVID-19, that just cemented our stance to provide this service.”