citybeat (2005-42)

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Staying Afloat

Center School endures staff and budget cuts

The News Sentinel reports on a man who was shot to death after charging at a Knoxville cop with a machete. Police can’t figure what the machete-wielding man’s motive was. We think he’d just come down with a case of the crazies.

On a typical afternoon, there are only three or four students in each of the three classrooms of Center School located in the old Knoxville High School building on Fifth Avenue. Principal Carol Russell explains that they have full classrooms early in the morning, but students drop off later in the day to attend jobs and tend to other obligations. Justin Lawson, a young curly-haired student working on an English assignment at his computer, tells Russell that he’s been missing from class for a few days now because he went down to Oxford, Miss., to aid hurricane victims in a relief effort through his job at Applebee’s. “It was so wild being there with those people,” he says. “It was good to be able to help.”

Center School affords students with special needs the unique flexibility they need to complete high school. Although there is the occasional older student, most are between 17 and 20 years of age and have dropped out of high school for one reason or another. It’s a small but important operation, and there’s some concern over the recent loss of staff members due to budget constraints as part of Knox County Schools’ plan of consolidating Center School with Evening High School, which resides in the same building.

Both programs allow students to earn real high school diplomas, thus separating them from GED programs. This commonality, Russell says, is why KCS saw fit to combine the two. She explains that the most significant difference between the programs is that Center School utilizes computers for nearly all of its curriculum, while Evening High School does not.

“We are working to consolidate the two sets of administrative burden,” says KCS spokesperson Russ Oaks. “The primary impetus is money, because there’s a certain amount of duplication, so we’re hoping to gain some synergy by combining the two.”

For the time being, KCS and Supt. Charles Lindsey are still working out the details of the shift. “We have not as yet received a final proposal from the superintendent about what this consolidation is going to be like,” says Russell, who currently presides over both Center School and Evening High School activities. “I’m just waiting for his word on any

Changes that have taken place so far have put a strain on Center School, though Russell and its other three employees are working hard to pick up the slack. A full-time guidance counselor and the school’s lone math teacher were moved to Fulton High School early in the school year. The staff also lost a full-time social worker at the same time. Now, a part-time guidance counselor comes twice a week, and Oaks guarantees that KCS is in the process of hiring a full-time math teacher. As for the social-work position, Oaks says, “The staff and superintendent decided that that position was not needed, so it was cut.”

The remaining three teachers and two administrators at Center School are determined to keep functioning as usual despite the losses. “We are diminished because we have fewer teachers,” says Pat Chastain, who’s been at the school since it opened in 1989. “It’s more of a challenge when students have problems now.”

Barbara Taylor, another teacher at Center School, explains that many of her students have to work around everything from transportation to emotional problems—issues that a social worker and guidance counselor are well suited to deal with. Still, she says, “We’re a small staff, and we work together very closely. We have to.”

The Center School staff may be resilient, but members of the At Risk Advisory Board, which makes recommendations regarding Center School, are concerned about the cutbacks. “Programs have been eliminated,” says board chairman Martha Dooley, who serves also as Knox County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson. “And the Center School is being dismantled by taking away these programs.”

Because Center School has been such a successful and widely replicated model, Dooley has concerns about altering its structure. “We’re so in the dark about what’s going on there,” she says. “We were understanding that the night school would be absorbed into Center School, but it now seems to be moving toward the other way around.”

Russell and the other remaining employees at Center School seem optimistic about the changes. “I feel like any adult in Knox County who did not get the opportunity to get their diploma should have that opportunity, whether during the day or at night,” says Russell. “Consolidating the two programs can only serve to make them stronger.”


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