• 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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  • Nutrition Team Committed
    To "Heart Work"

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 5/1/2020
    Nutrition employees at Halls High School prepare meals on April 29, 2020.
    Nutrition employees at Halls High School prepare meals on April 29, 2020.  

    As the cafeteria manager at Gibbs Middle School, Tami Benziger enjoys the chance to visit with hundreds of students every day when school is in session.

    It’s hard work, but Benziger said it’s also “heart work” -- “You've got to love what you do to be able to do it.”

    That’s even more true during the extended closure prompted by COVID-19. Across Knox County, nutrition workers have stepped up to make sandwiches, pack fruit and prepare meals for thousands of students who otherwise might go hungry.

    The scope of that operation was apparent on Wednesday at Halls High School, where a team of nutrition employees worked in the cafeteria to prepare meals that were delivered to the school’s drive-thru lane on carts, where they were distributed by teachers and administrators.

    Brett Foster, the district’s Executive Director of Nutrition, said one of the challenges has been making the transition to fully pre-packaged meals, rather than the typical process of giving students options to choose from.

    On this particular morning, Foster said employees at Halls had made 1,800 turkey, ham and cheese sandwiches by hand, adding that the extended closure has emphasized the dedication of Knox County’s school nutrition team.

    “I’ve always said that they're some of the hardest working people we have in this district, and it’s just being highlighted now,” she said.

    During the closure, KCS has been serving between 10,000 and 13,000 students on distribution days. Through May 20, two days of meals are provided on Mondays and three days of meals are provided on Wednesdays, which means that on busy days the team can distribute nearly 40,000 breakfast meals and another 40,000 lunch meals.

    Foster said the pandemic has affected some families who never thought they would need food, but are now struggling with the loss of a job or a reduction in their income.

    In fact, Benziger -- who is managing operations at Halls High during the closure -- said she recently spoke to a parent who was considering whether to participate, but didn’t want to take food that someone else needed.

    Benziger assured her that there was plenty, and said she hopes Knox County families don’t hesitate to pick up what they need.

    “I know we can’t help with their finances or with what's going on in their lives, but we can help to put a little food there for them,” she said, “so the money that they would spend on it could go toward something else.”


    Tami Benziger is coordinating meal distribution at Halls High School during the extended closure. When school is in session, Benziger is the cafeteria manager at Gibbs Middle School.
    Tami Benziger is coordinating meal distribution at Halls High School during the extended closure. When school is in session, Benziger is the cafeteria manager at Gibbs Middle School.  
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  • Halls Student Has
    A Heart For Animals

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 3/11/2020
    Haley Grisham, a Halls High School junior, was one of 50 students from across the country to attend the FFA NextGen: Animal Systems conference last month in Kansas City.
    Haley Grisham, a Halls High School junior, was one of 50 students from across the country to attend the FFA "NextGen: Animal Systems" conference last month in Kansas City.  

    When the FFA hosted its “NextGen: Animal Systems” conference last month in Kansas City, only 50 students from across the country were chosen to participate.

    One of them was Haley Grisham, a Halls High School junior who is hoping her love for animals will lead to a career caring for them.

    “It was really encouraging because everyone was there to better their future,” she said. “They were all there to learn, to just absorb everything we could.”

    Participants were chosen by a selection committee, and learned about topics including emerging trends in animal systems; the use of big data; and regulatory issues related to the field.

    Grisham was one of three students from Tennessee who participated. She enjoyed the chance to hear from U.S. Department of Agriculture officials about the agency’s plan to build a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan, Kan., and she got firsthand experience conducting pregnancy checks on cows.

    The event also provided an opportunity to meet students with similar interests, although growing up in the Knoxville area meant her background was different than some of her fellow attendees.

    “I can’t remember ever touching a cow (before), but 90% of the kids there raised cows,” she said.

    While Grisham didn’t grow up on a farm, she’s had plenty of exposure to animals. Her family owns a Jack Russell-Dachsund mix named “Pancake” and she has several birds, including a “sun conure” -- a type of parakeet -- named “Sunny D.” Grisham also volunteers at Hooves & Feathers, a farm animal rescue organization, and cares for classroom animals at Halls.

    After high school, she hopes to attend Middle Tennessee State University and study horse physiology, and she’s considering a career training and caring for wild horses in areas where their population has outgrown the available resources. In the long run, she said, she’d like to own a ranch.

    Grisham said she has a knack for communicating with creatures. “I can just go up to an animal, and they understand how I feel, I understand how they feel,” she said. “I just have that connection with them. … I love animals, they’re great.”

    Ultimately, attending the conference may help provide a focus for Grisham's existing interests. Patti Keep, an agriculture teacher at Halls, said Grisham is an excellent student, and that the NextGen conference helped her zero in on her interests: “She’s very dedicated to anything that she does,” Keep said.

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  • Program Offers Incentives
    For Special Ed Teachers

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 3/11/2020
    KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, dean of the UTK College of Education, Health and Human Sciences Ellen McIntyre and interim UT System President Randy Boyd announced the Grow Your Own program on Monday, March 2, 2020.
    KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, dean of the UTK College of Education, Health and Human Sciences Ellen McIntyre and interim UT System President Randy Boyd announced the "Grow Your Own" program on Monday, March 2, 2020.  


    A new partnership between Knox County Schools, the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Department of Education is working to boost the number of special education teachers in Knox County.

    On Monday, officials announced the “Grow Your Own” initiative, which offers incentives to UT students who aspire to special education as a career.

    The program would launch in the fall of 2020, with KCS hiring 10 to 15 UT students as paraprofessionals during their intern year. Students in that Aspiring Teacher cohort would receive a salary and health care, and earn years toward retirement.

    In addition, KCS would offer teaching jobs and signing bonuses in the 2021-22 school year, pending degree completion, licensure and good standing as a paraprofessional.

    At a news conference on Monday, Superintendent Bob Thomas joined Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn; interim UT System President Randy Boyd; and Ellen McIntyre, dean of the UTK College of Education, Health and Human Sciences, to announce the program.

    Thomas said the announcement was a historic moment for Knox County Schools, and noted that the district starts every school year with teaching vacancies, particularly in special education.

    The Grow Your Own initiative, he said, “is going to provide a pipeline for us. It’s going to allow us to fill the (vacancies) that we have … as well as build a pipeline of well-prepared teachers.”

    The state Department of Education also announced that $1 million will be made available for teachers across the state to get a special education endorsement.

    The state will contract with educator preparation programs to offer the endorsement to current teachers, and the funds will pay for teacher tuition. Districts will be allowed to submit teachers to get the endorsement at no cost to them.

    Boyd, the interim UT president, on Monday recalled three teachers at Doyle High School who made a difference in his own academic journey, and noted that the percentage of college students who choose education as a major has dropped significantly in the last 40 years.

    “This program, this partnership will help us go a long way to solving that,” he said.


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  • "Good Night, Inskip" Promotes
    Literacy, Community

    Posted by JOSH FLORY on 2/25/2020


    Inskip Elementary School is using technology to put a new twist on the traditional bedtime story.

    Over the last two years, Inskip has launched a weekly gathering called “Good Night, Inskip,” in which teachers, principals and other school staff read a bedtime story that is videotaped.

    The videos are shared online every Wednesday night, and many of them feature school employees reading in their homes.

    Lalita Thompson has two daughters who attend the school, and said she learned about the program shortly after they enrolled.

    Thompson said her girls look forward to the videos, and their favorite so far was “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” by Eric Carle. “We’ve been reading it to them since they were little,” she said.

    Inskip Principal Lynn Jacomen said the school is trying to promote a culture of reading, and to reach families in unconventional ways.

    As part of that effort, a teacher recently teamed up with a student to read a children’s book in two languages. “Now we’re really trying to reach out to our Spanish-speaking families more and see how can we also make sure that we’re reading the book in Spanish,” Jacomen said.

    Besides sharing popular books with students, “Good Night, Inskip” has also made an impression by showing a different side of teachers and school staff.

    Some teachers have worn pajamas in their videos, while others incorporate their pets as sidekicks. Kaelyn Martin, a 2nd-grade student, said those videos are fun because “the pet’s cute and it makes the people happy.”

    Martin said her favorite bedtime story was “Pete The Cat,” adding that the videos help her fall asleep.

    “Whenever they’re reading the stories, they’re not really going too fast,” she said. “And when they’re kind of going slow it makes me sleepy.”

    Kaelyn Martin, a 2nd-grade student at Inskip Elementary, says the school's bedtime story videos are fun, and help her fall asleep.
    Kaelyn Martin, a 2nd-grade student at Inskip Elementary, says the school's bedtime story videos are fun, and help her fall asleep.  


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