How Grassy Fork grew an unreal new reputation
A Miracle in the Mountains
When Metro Pulse visited Grassy Fork Elementary School in Cocke County three years ago, there was an air of expectation and optimism in the school. The young, energetic principal had been named the county’s principal of the year for 2001-02, and the teachers showed inordinate eagerness to get down to teaching at the start of the fall term. The kids displayed an unusual amount of courtesy and self-discipline for their ages, kindergarteners through eighth graders.
It was hard to believe that Grassy Fork, in the tiny, hardscrabble community of the same name, had been designated by the state as a “high priority” school, in drastic need of improvement. It seemed so nice, and it was getting there fast. The school was identified by the Greeneville, Tenn.-based Niswonger Foundation as one of the foundation’s targets, based on its poverty-stricken, rural setting and the fact that its principal said it just needed expert management support and a few materials to excel. Principal Shannon Grooms’ school got a grant of a little over $100,000 worth of specific management and materials assistance from the foundation, and he and his teachers went to work with some new-found help.
The foundation’s director, Oliver Thomas, went to the City of Maryville, where he had been school board chairman at one time, and enlisted Sam Houston Elementary School Principal Linda Irwin to mentor Grooms and his staff. And the foundation bought some suggested instructional material. The whole Grassy Fork community, including its leaders, the students, their parents, and the school’s entire staff were delighted and appreciative at the time, according to Grooms, who said the total school community “doesn’t want a good education here. They won’t settle for that. They want it to be better, a lot better, than that.”
Still, what happened next is even harder to believe. The school’s overall Academic Achievement and year-on-year Value-Added scores, as measured by the state, had been dismal. The school’s state report card was showing Ds and Fs in every subject area. Three short years later, those scores were all As and Bs, 95 percent of its students were proficient or advanced in reading, and 94 percent of its students were proficient or advanced in math.
With an outside investment of about $350 per school year for each of Grassy Fork’s 125 students, the school went from near the bottom of the state’s assessment scale to near the top. Indeed, the Value-Added scores are now higher than those in three of the four elementary schools in Maryville, one of the state’s most highly regarded school districts.
Thomas had said the foundation, established by Scott Niswonger, the LandAir and Forward Air trucking and freight-forwarding companies’ founder and principal stockholder, wanted to make Grassy Fork a demonstration project and model for rural elementary education, and it has.
It has demonstrated convincingly that the learning abilities of students from low-income families (100 percent of them qualified for free or reduced-price lunches) are equal to those from middle- or upper-income families.
Thomas believes the Grassy Fork success story has broad implications nationwide, eventually, but the foundation’s focus is still in East and Upper East Tennessee, where it has funded projects tailored to the individual, special needs of schools and school districts in Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hamblen, Hawkins, Johnson and Unicoi Counties since 2002.
All have shown good results in the foundation’s estimation, but none so remarkable as the transformation at Grassy Fork, where the principal’s position was the school just needed a little “spark.” It got that, and it set a blaze that can be seen now from Mountain City to Mud Island. It ought to be charging a modeling fee.