• Bearden Grad Wins
    Peyton Manning Scholarship

    Posted by JOSHUA FLORY on 9/17/2020
    Christiane Alvarez was recently named one of this year's four recipients of the Peyton Manning Scholarship at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
    Christiane Alvarez was recently named one of this year's four recipients of the Peyton Manning Scholarship at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  

    A Bearden High School graduate who is hoping to combat addiction and substance abuse in Appalachia is getting an assist from a Rocky Top legend.

    Last month, University of Tennessee-Knoxville freshman Christiane Alvarez was announced as one of this year’s four winners of the Peyton Manning Scholarship.

    The award is endowed by the former UT quarterback, and has been given to a total of 45 students since 1998.

    Alvarez graduated from Bearden last December, and is planning to study neuroscience and anthropology. Through a family member’s struggle with addiction, she met a variety of people who were in rehab and said she wants to help children and teenagers who are coming out of households marked by substance abuse.

    “Seeing other people who struggle … once you see that you can’t really turn around and turn a blind eye, especially if I have the ability to do something about it,” she said. “That’s why I’m going to college, that’s why we learn and study so we can get in positions to help those that we couldn’t before.”

    Alvarez is hoping to become a research scientist, and has already done internships at UTK and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as volunteering at Susannah’s House, a Knoxville-based outpatient recovery program for mothers.

    Alvarez and the other winners will participate in UTK’s Haslam Scholars program, which provides a full scholarship as well as leadership training and the opportunity to study abroad.

    This year’s winners were honored in a Zoom call on Aug. 17, featuring the students, their families, UT leaders and Manning himself.

    While not necessarily a sports fan, Alvarez said she has great respect for Manning because of his commitment to making a difference, and said that while speaking to the former quarterback on Zoom, “I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to remember this conversation for the rest of my life.’”

    She also experienced Manning’s attention to detail, which became famous during an 18-year career in the NFL.

    “He said my name, and the best part is that no one ever pronounces my name right -- and that’s okay -- but Peyton Manning pronounced my name right!”  (Alvarez explained that her first name is pronounced like “Christianity”, without the “-ity.”)

    Alvarez said her favorite time at Bearden was her junior year, which included math teacher Catherine Buckner, physics teacher William Schult and former BHS teacher Kathryn Waddell.

    Buckner, who taught Alvarez in AP calculus, said her former student was not only an outstanding scholar, but a humble person.

    “She would never ever talk about how good she was at math or this or that or the other, she was just so appreciative. When she would leave the class she would always say thank you, and they don’t all do that.”

    Alvarez also recalled that in her early years at Bearden, she visited with guidance counselor Beverly Anderson and told her about the things she wanted to do, like attending UT, working at ORNL and volunteering with a nonprofit.

    “And now I get to turn around and tell her, all of those things we talked about, they actually came to fruition.”

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  • Twin Brothers Commit To Play
    Football At West Point

    Posted by JOSHUA FLORY on 9/4/2020


    For Kalib and Liam Fortner, a journey that began with flag football and back-to-back state championships will continue next year at West Point.

    The Central High School seniors are twin brothers who were born 17 minutes apart. Earlier this year, both received offers to play football at the U.S. Military Academy, the prestigious service academy that prepares cadets to serve as Army officers.

    The twins have shared their meals, their clothes and their rooms all their lives, and Liam said they never really thought about attending different universities. Attending West Point together, he said, means that “you’ve got a best friend that’s going 10 hours away with you.”

    Kalib Fortner is an outside linebacker who was an All State selection in each of the last two years, and recorded 10 sacks last year.

    Liam Fortner is a wide receiver who earned all-region honors last year, and who scored four touchdowns in the Bobcats’ first two games of this season.

    Coach Nick Craney said the twins are key leaders in a program that has won state championships in each of the last two seasons.

    “They’re examples for the guys around them,” Craney said. “And not just visual examples but they’re vocal examples, two kids that will correct things that need to be corrected on the field and in the weight room and in the locker room.”

    That leadership ability will serve them well at West Point, a program in which preparation for Division I football is combined with the intense challenges of military training and rigorous academics. After graduating from the service academy, cadets are commissioned as officers in the U.S. Army and serve for five years.

    Liam said he may pursue aviation during his time at West Point, while Kalib is considering engineering.

    And both brothers said the military commitment is similar to the bonds that come with playing on a football team.

    “I like to fight for my brothers out here on the field,” said Kalib. “So going out and fighting for everybody in the United States, it’s an honor. And I’m really glad I get this opportunity to do that for everybody.”

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  • Principals Prepare For
    Virtual Learning

    Posted by JOSHUA FLORY on 8/24/2020
    Megan O'Dell, principal of Brickey-McCloud Elementary School, is helping her school get ready for in-school instruction and the district's new virtual learning program.
    Megan O'Dell, principal of Brickey-McCloud Elementary School, is helping her school get ready for in-school instruction and the district's new virtual learning program.  

    The start of classes on Aug. 24 will mark a milestone for Knox County Schools, as the district launches a virtual learning program for more than 18,000 students across the county.

    In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, KCS gave families two options for learning during the fall semester: in-person, on-campus instruction with enhanced health and safety protections, or a robust virtual program that will closely align with the rigor of a traditional classroom.

    Each school will have a virtual learning program, while the district has also expanded its QuEST program to cover courses that are not available in schools.

    In recent weeks principals and teachers across the district have been getting ready. Megan O’Dell, principal at Brickey-McCloud Elementary, said one of the biggest challenges has been making sure that students and teachers feel included no matter which type of instruction they’re receiving.

    Even a simple tradition like the morning announcements has to be structured in a way that’s accessible for everyone, and O’Dell said it’s a little like running two schools in one. “Everything we do we have to think about ‘How are we including our in-person and our virtual students?’” she said.

    At Vine Middle School, approximately half of the school’s students signed up for the virtual learning program, and principal Desiree Jones said it was a daunting task to align student and teacher schedules to accommodate that shift.

    Jones said Vine’s tagline for the upcoming school year is “Focused and Flexible”, adding that she has been reminding her staff that “you’re amazing.”

    “They know how to connect with kids, they know how to establish those relationships,” Jones said. “And we just need to be cognizant that even though it is a brand-new format and platform, that we still know how to teach. … It’s just giving yourself the grace and the space to bring that to the forefront of your mind.”

    A school day in the virtual program will look a little different at each school, but all students can expect to use Microsoft Teams for live instruction and class meetings, along with Canvas as a digital backpack for assignments.

    Some instruction will happen in real time, while other lessons will be available for students to pursue as their schedule permits. Virtual students will also have time away from their Chromebooks for activities including reading, lunch and exercise.

    Debbie Sayers, principal at Bearden High School, said one of the most important things students can do to prepare for virtual instruction is to create a comfortable learning space where they can focus: “So whether that’s inside, whether that’s outside, a place where they can be engaged -- and lying down on the couch is probably not a good idea.”

    In one sense, the virtual program will also be an opportunity for teachers to demonstrate life lessons that they have worked to instill in their students.

    Sayers said Bearden has tried to emphasize the importance of letting teachers experiment with new strategies. If they work, she said, teachers can share them, and if they don’t work they can either tweak the experiment and try again, or just move on to a new strategy.

    “That’s the same kind of thing we want to see in our kids,” she said, “that willingness to try and know that it’s okay to fail, as long as we learn something from it and then move on.”

    And while COVID-19 has been a tremendous challenge, the chance to embrace virtual learning could be a positive in some ways.

    As the district provides Chromebooks to every K-12 student through its new 1:1 initiative, there will be more opportunities for all students to utilize online instruction, including on days when school buildings are closed for inclement weather or illness.

    O’Dell, of Brickey-McCloud, said teachers in the virtual learning program are “paving the path” and will be a great resource for other teachers as the district utilizes online instruction in the future. “They’re getting to test out things ahead of time where they’re going to be the leaders of this virtual path and can help their teammates and their colleagues along the way who have questions,” she said.

    And in some cases, students may enjoy the chance to learn online. Jones, of Vine Middle, said virtual learning will help put some of her students on a trajectory for even more success.

    “Some students will take this and run to higher heights with it.”

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  • A-E Community
    Remembers Rep. John Lewis

    Posted by JOSHUA FLORY on 8/24/2020
    McArthur Douglas, a volunteer chaperone with the Project Grade Brother To Brother mentoring group at Austin-East High School, poses with U.S. Rep. John Lewis during a trip in 2011.
    McArthur Douglas, a volunteer chaperone with the Project Grad Brother To Brother mentoring group at Austin-East High School, poses with U.S. Rep. John Lewis during a trip to Washington, D.C. in 2011.  

    The recent death of John Lewis, a longtime U.S. Representative and an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, brought back a special memory for one member of the Austin-East High School community.

    Jesse Jones is a Project Grad Student and Family Support Coach at Austin-East, and in 2011 he helped lead a trip to Washington, D.C. for eight A-E students who were part of a mentoring group called Brother To Brother.

    The trip was sponsored by Carolyn and Will Minter, and Jones said the group met civil rights and political leaders from both near and far. In addition to Lewis, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, the group unexpectedly met Knoxville Mayor Daniel Brown in a hallway.

    The chance meeting with Brown reinforced a message that Jones had emphasized to students throughout the trip, about the importance of carrying themselves with respect.

    “(The mayor) stopped on a dime and took a picture with our young men,” Jones recalled, “and I looked around and I said, ‘You see that? … You never know who knows you.’”

    One of the most vivid memories was seeing Lewis, a Georgia Congressman who passed away on July 17 and whose body lay in state at the U.S. Capitol last week.

    The congressman posed for a picture with McArthur Douglas, a volunteer chaperone on the trip, and Jones said the group understood that they were in the presence of greatness, even though Lewis didn’t carry himself with arrogance.

    Jones said the Congressman’s legacy was one of boldness in standing up for what was right: “He was a bold and brave fighter for civil rights who wasn’t afraid, as you heard, to get into good trouble.”

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  • Chromebook Distribution
    Will Enhance Learning

    Posted by JOSHUA FLORY on 7/30/2020
    Under the district's new 1:1 initiative, K-2 students will receive touchscreen Chromebooks while students in Grades 3-12 will receive laptops.
    Under the district's new 1:1 initiative, K-2 students will receive touchscreen Chromebooks while students in Grades 3-12 will receive laptops.  

    Providing a Chromebook to every KCS student is a complicated task, but preparations have begun at schools across the county.

    In May of this year, the Knox County Board of Education and Knox County Commissioners approved a 1:1 plan that will make a Chromebook computer available to every KCS student in Grades K-12, starting in the fall semester.

    The initiative was made possible by federal funding provided through the CARES Act. The goal is to help teachers enhance their instruction through the use of technology, whether they’re teaching in the district’s new virtual learning program or returning to schools for in-person, on-campus instruction.

    Gail Byard, the district’s Chief Technology Officer, said KCS has been receiving shipments of Chromebooks in quantities of about 2,500 computers each.

    “This probably would have been a two-year rollout in normal circumstances and we’re doing this in about 3-4 months, so it’s definitely fast-tracked,” Byard said. “As quickly as we get them into the warehouse, we turn around and distribute them to the schools.”

    Two different devices will be provided to students this year. For Grades K-2, the Chromebooks will be touch-screen devices with keyboards that can be flipped to the back, replicating the look and feel of a tablet. For Grades 3-12, laptop-style Chromebooks will be provided, using traditional keyboards.

    IT Infrastructure Manager Freddie Cox said the devices will feature web-based applications, with three primary systems used by students: Aspen to communicate with teachers, Canvas as a “digital backpack” for assignments and content, and Microsoft Teams as a virtual classroom.

    Besides providing the tools they need, Cox also said the computers will provide safeguards. “On each of the Chromebooks we do have a filtering application that protects not only from inappropriate material but also things that could pose an IT security risk,” he said. “So we’re looking at it from preventing malware and security problems all the way up to protecting students from harmful content.”

    All devices will be provided free of charge, but families will be given the option to buy insurance for $30. To sign up for a Chromebook, parents must fill out a registration form and an insurance form.

    Once the forms are submitted, each student’s base school will contact them with details about how and when the devices will be distributed. The district will provide a notification if families are eligible for an insurance subsidy. All families who receive free and reduced-price meals qualify for the subsidy, and families can visit LunchApplication.com to apply for free and reduced-price meals.

    In order to best use the laptop, families should ensure their home has access to the internet by the start of school on August 17. More information about standard and low-cost options for internet service are available at this link.

    For more information about the 1:1 program and Frequently Asked Questions, visit www.knoxschools.org/chromebooks.

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  • Vine Middle Hosts
    "Virtual Boost Camp"

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 7/22/2020
    Transportation U, a KCS program that trains new bus drivers for Knox County Schools, recently celebrated its first class of graduates. In this picture, trainer Doug Romig (left) stands with (L to R) Anita King, Bonnie Gillespie and Cheyenne Rickman.
    Melody Hawkins, an 8th-grade science teacher at Vine Middle Magnet School, was director of the school's Virtual Boost Camp this summer.  

    As Knox County Schools gears up to offer virtual learning for many students across the district, one middle school gained some valuable experience over the summer.

    In June, Vine Middle Magnet School hosted a "Virtual Boost Camp" for nearly two dozen incoming 6th-grade students. Besides helping students get acquainted with the expectations of middle school, the camp also aimed to offset some of the lost learning from the spring closure; to offer social and emotional support; and to provide students with familiar faces at their new school. The camp was funded by a TeacherPreneur grant from the Knox Education Foundation (formerly the Great Schools Partnership.)

    “At Vine, we realize that relationships are a huge determining factor in a student feeling like they belong,” said 8th-grade science teacher Melody Hawkins, the camp’s director. “And when students feel like they belong in their classroom and their school, then they are more motivated to try hard things and to interact with productive struggle.”

    The virtual camp took place over a two-week period, with students working on Chromebooks for 90 minutes each day. Students were organized into small groups, and spent each day of the week working online with a different teacher.

    Hawkins said one recurring theme for teachers was how to provide helpful feedback in a virtual setting, where it’s harder to make eye contact. In addition, she said the project highlighted the fact that there will be occasional technology challenges that teachers will need to manage.

    As an example, Hawkins said Vine teachers “were rock stars” when it came to helping students rejoin a class if they had lost connectivity.

    “Once the student got back in, teachers were great at making sure they did a quick review, ‘This is what we covered, this is what you missed,’ or they would lean on another student to review material,” she said. “And that created that camaraderie and that group mentality.”

    When Knox County Schools reopens on Aug. 17, students will have the option of returning to in-person, on-campus instruction or enrolling in a virtual learning program. The deadline to enroll in the virtual program is 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, July 22.

    For teachers and administrators who are providing instruction in the virtual setting, one point of emphasis will be how to build relationships with their students.

    Kalie Bearden, a math interventionist at Vine who participated in this summer’s boot camp, said she planned some icebreaker activities designed to get students talking, including games like “Two Truths and a Lie” and a game in which students had to answer questions such as “Who’s your favorite villain?”, or “What’s the strangest word you know?”

    After playing those games, Bearden said, “I feel like I already have some conversation starters  … and we already have some kind of connection. They’re going to remember that I have guinea pigs and that my dog, Mia, sat in my lap through the whole lesson, and things like that.”

    And for all the differences between online and in-person instruction, some things stay the same.

    “I just think it’s really important for us to figure out ways to be creative and stay in touch with our kids no matter whether they’re virtual or in the school building,” said Bearden. “I think most teachers would agree that one of the keys to successful teaching is building relationships, so we can’t forget that when we go into the virtual world.”


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  • "Transportation U" Trains
    New Bus Drivers

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 7/9/2020
    Transportation U, a KCS program that trains new bus drivers for Knox County Schools, recently celebrated its first class of graduates. In this picture, trainer Doug Romig (left) stands with (L to R) Anita King, Bonnie Gillespie and Cheyenne Rickman.
    Transportation U, a KCS program that trains new bus drivers for Knox County Schools, recently celebrated its first class of graduates. In this picture, trainer Doug Romig (left) stands with Anita King, Bonnie Gillespie and Cheyenne Rickman (left to right).  

    Knox County Schools has always been in the education business, and a new program from the Transportation Department will extend that mission to bus drivers.

    In June, KCS honored the first three graduates of its Transportation U initiative, an in-house program that allows applicants who have never driven a bus to obtain their necessary training and licensure in only a month.

    The move was prompted by regulatory changes that mandated additional training for entry-level drivers. Director of transportation Ryan Dillingham said that until now, the training of new drivers had been managed by bus contractors.

    By moving that process in-house, he said, the district believes it can not only standardize the training process but also make it more efficient, in part by increasing the number of applicants who pass the CDL test on their first try.

    “We’re trying to improve this process by providing support and education to our drivers so that they can have better outcomes,” Dillingham said.

    The Transportation U program is a four-week course that combines classroom instruction with driver education conducted under the supervision of a licensed trainer. The course also includes training about disinfecting and cleaning buses to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

    Each session will be capped at five students, and new classes will begin every two weeks. The goal is to direct nearly all new drivers through Transportation U, while experienced drivers who come from another district or state will continue using a modified training process that has already been in use.

    Dillingham said the program is a rigorous one, with students participating five days a week for a minimum of six hours a day.

    “This program is geared toward taking someone with no experience or licensure, and turning them into a bus driver in one month,” he said.

    For more information about the program or becoming a KCS driver, please contact the Transportation Department at (865) 594-1550.

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  • Coaches, Principals Speak
    Out On Racial Justice

    Posted by JOSHUA FLORY on 6/30/2020


    Taking over a football program is always a challenge, but two head coaches who stepped into the spotlight this year are managing more than just X’s and O’s.

    Austin-East defensive coordinator Antonio Mays was recently named head coach of the Roadrunners, while Central defensive coordinator Nick Craney was tapped to lead the Bobcats.

    The new role has come with a heavier responsibility, as young people across the country wrestle with the killing of George Floyd and the calls for racial justice that came in its wake.

    In interviews, both coaches said football provides an opportunity to build unity.

    “The rest of society and the rest of the country and the rest of [our] communities, they could learn a lot by coming and watching a high school football team that is together and a family,” said Craney. “Because we really are trying to build our kids to end racial injustice and to end racism.”

    Floyd’s death sparked weeks of protests, many of which included students and young people.

    Mays, who also works as a College and Career Access Coach with Project Grad, said one of the most important things that young people can do is vote -- including his own son, who is a student at Tennessee State University.

    “He’s got to vote more than just in the presidential elections,” Mays said. “We have to educate our children on how important it is to have local turnout, to vote for these local leaders who represent our agendas well.”

    While student-athletes are among the first to return to campuses this summer, conversations about justice issues haven’t been limited to practice sessions.

    Some principals and students have spoken out about current events during commencement ceremonies, which were delayed until June because of COVID-19.

    At Central’s graduation, principal Andrew Brown cited the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

    “We are living in a pandemic that has taken over 100,000 American lives,” Brown told Central’s Class of 2020. “That is somewhat out of our control. What is in our control is how we treat others. The violence and killing has to stop, and it starts with you.”

    As school leaders prepare for the start of a new school year in August, that message of empowerment will likely be an ongoing theme.

    Austin-East principal Nathan Langlois said he’s been pleased to see peaceful protests and calls for justice, but added that the next step is to take actions that lead to long-term, systematic change.

    “I’m very hopeful, I’m very optimistic, I really have been empowered and like what I’m seeing,” Langlois said. “But again, you have 400 years that we’ve had these chances and we’ve failed. So I guess what I really want to say to this next generation is do what my generation couldn’t do. Solve the problems that my generation has not yet solved.”

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  • Farragut Alums Earn
    Fulbright Awards

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 6/3/2020

    A pair of former KCS students were among the honorees last month when the University of Tennessee-Knoxville announced 17 recipients of a prestigious national fellowship.

    Farragut High School alumnae Kristi Phillips, who graduated from UTK this year, and Jaime Ragos, who graduated from UTK in 2019, were both offered the Fulbright Student award, which provides study, research and teaching opportunities in foreign countries.

    Phillips plans to work in Belarus during her fellowship, while Ragos will work in Taiwan, although the COVID-19 pandemic will delay their moving dates until at least January.Kristi Phillips

    Phillips, who majored in language and world business with a concentration in Russian studies at UTK, lived in Minsk last summer while teaching English. She didn’t meet a single American during her visit, and said the people she met were eager to learn about American culture.

    “I made a lot of good friends there and it was just a very welcoming learning environment,” she said.

    Phillips speaks Russian, and plans to eventually pursue a master’s degree in library science, with the goal of becoming an elementary school librarian. During her career at Farragut, she said Russian language teacher Anna Arapakos was a significant influence: “She was so enthusiastic and excited about Russian culture and languages, it was infectious almost.”

    Ragos majored in food science and technology; language and world business; and Latin American and Caribbean studies at UTK, and currently works as a researcher for a Chicago-based nonprofit called Stop Foodborne Illness.Jaime Ragos

    During her fellowship in Taiwan, she plans to study Taiwanese and Chinese cultural practices and beliefs, and how they affect health and safety. Her ultimate goal is to go to medical school and get a PhD in epidemiology, with a focus on preventing disease outbreaks.

    Besides her work, the fellowship will provide an opportunity to re-connect with family members:  Ragos is Filipino, and said her parents have already contacted relatives in the Philippines to tell them that “I’m spending the holidays with them.”

    Ragos said her mentors at Farragut included former chemistry teacher Debbie Fraser; Spanish teachers Irma Acevedo and Allison Maldonado; and social studies teacher Elizabeth Blankenship, who was also the Student Government Association advisor.

    For more information about the Fulbright Award, visit its website

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  • KCS Celebrates
    Field Day ... At Home!

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/12/2020
    Students and teachers celebrate Field Day at Northshore Elementary in May, 2019.
    Students and teachers celebrate Field Day at Northshore Elementary in May, 2019.  

    It's Field Day Season, and KCS is working to helping families participate -- even during the extended closure!

    The first KCS@home Field Day will be held from May 18-22, with a list of more than 30 events -- including classic competitions like the sack race, dizzy-bat race and balloon stomp competition -- available on our website.

    Share pictures on social media using #KCSatHomeFieldDay, and don't forget to have fun!


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