citybeat (2006-42)

Bredesen’s residential math-and-science high school set to debut here in Knoxville

But the transit center may go literally up in the air

Wednesday, Oct. 11

Smart and Smarter

Don’t be fooled by his political power and smooth-talking charm: Governor Phil Bredesen was a big geek in high school. He had a head full of numbers and scientific formulas and, growing up in the small agricultural community of Shortsville, N.Y., nowhere to put them. So when the teenage Bredesen got the opportunity to spend the summer between his junior and senior year studying physics at Cornell, on a National Science Foundation scholarship, he jumped at the chance.

“It was a life-changing experience for me,” he said last week at Vanderbilt, during the Tennessee Business Roundtable’s 2nd Annual CEO Summit on Math and Science Education.

While the experience was certainly useful education-wise, giving Bredesen a jump-start when he entered Harvard’s physics program the following year, it was the whole package, he says, that made the difference. “Coming from a small community… going off to a major university and having the opportunity to be immersed in such a different set of experiences and people impacted my life in ways that are still very important to me,” he explained.

Now Bredesen wants to give 25 of the state’s “most promising and motivated” high-school students a chance to immerse themselves in a similar program. In January of this year, at the annual meeting of the State Board of Education and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the governor announced plans to allocate $1 million toward the establishment of a highly competitive, residential math-and-science high school for the state’s “best and brightest” juniors and seniors. The school, to be located at the UT Space Institute in Tullahoma, would open in Fall 2007 with an initial enrolment of approximately 40 students.

Since then, Bredesen has tweaked his vision somewhat. At last week’s roundtable, he announced that the math-and-science high school would, “at least at the outset,” be located in South Knoxville. The initial 25 enrollees will live at the Tennessee School for the Deaf (TSD), whose 86-year-old, 96-acre riverfront campus on Island Home Boulevard is equipped with residential facilities. “This is a beautiful campus,” he explained, “designed with small group cottages to create a home-like atmosphere where students can live and learn together.” Bredesen noted the school’s proximity to UT, where the students will take advanced classes, and to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the students will take part in apprenticeships and research projects.

Katharine Mosher, deputy director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Education, says of the altered plans, “To me his comments suggest that they could just get [the school] off the ground faster.” The program is expected to grow larger in the future, at which point it may outgrow the TSD facilities.

Alan J. Mealka, superintendent of TSD, says the school had to do some re-arranging but expects to have two cottages freed up by the school’s Fall 2007 launch. He says TSD is excited about hosting the math-and-science high school and expects the two co-existing programs to benefit one another.

“It’s a great cross-cultural opportunity for hearing and deaf students to be together on what I’ll call equal footing. Deaf students in mainstream public school are many times isolated. Every interaction takes place through an interpreter, and that can get pretty lonely,” he explains. Mealka hopes that a sort of exchange program can take shape, with the hearing students tutoring the deaf students in math and science and the deaf students tutoring the hearing students in sign language. 

The situation sounds ideal in the context of Bredesen’s emphasis on “being immersed in such a different set of experiences and people,” as he was during his own high-school experience at Cornell. Because, after all, there’s more to life than math and science, and physicists sometimes grow up to be governors.  

Still No Where There

The long-delayed and anxiously awaited Knoxville Transit Center had its options weighed last week at a public meeting at the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership offices on Market Square. The result was that the three options still open received a full examination. The public was assured that no decisions have been made, and the costs of each of the options are still being computed.

The three sites and site plans still on the board are the corner of Clinch Avenue and Hall of Fame Drive, including air rights over the James White Parkway there adjacent to the Clinch Avenue Viaduct; an area surrounding the Norfolk-Southern Railway station along Depot Street; and green space west of the City County Building along Main Street.

Public comment, including a petition signed by more than 100 persons, went strongly against the Main Street site, mostly citing traffic congestion,

Comment on the Norfolk-Southern/Depot Street site centered on its proximity to future rail transit proposals, and comment on the Clinch Avenue site was mixed but generally favorable. It is the preferred option by Knox Area Transit, the bus and trolley company, but it is also the most expensive because of site acquisition and likely construction costs, according to Jeff Galyon, senior project manager for the Public Building Authority, which is shepherding the site selection process.

Galyon presented pros and cons for each site at the hearing, which was attended by about 60 people, including City Council and County Commission members and city and county officials, along with about 30 private citizens. Galyon said the citizen response was disappointment that the cost analyses were not complete, but gratification that the proposals were being reviewed for them before, rather than after, a final site plan is selected.

Bill Lyons, the city’s senior director for policy development, says the group heard “ a lot of explanation, and there was a very frank and full discussion” of the transit-center issues.

The project cost, which is still under review, has run from $17 million to more than $25 million. The high figure was for the State Street site, which has been scrapped, along with a proposed site east of the Civic Auditorium/Coliseum on the south side of Clinch Avenue.

Available funds include an appropriated federal grant total of $20 million, with $11 million already in the bank, and a city share in its capital budget of $2.75 million, to be matched by TDOT. Final site selections will likely rest in large part on the projected cost of plans to secure, build and utilize the center.

Galyon says the least expensive option would be the Depot Street site, which could also be the quickest to complete. Besides the rail advantage, the Depot Street site could accommodate 20 buses at a time, but they would need two levels of bus parking to accomplish that, and, Galyon says, “We would have to acquire some land from Norfolk-Southern,” always a dicey proposition, “and there are historical issues yet to be addressed.”  He says federal rules require that “all parties have to reach consensus on the historical character of the structure.”

Being along the existing rail line is an advantage, but rail transit is probably 20 to 30 years away, Galyon says, and the disadvantage to that site is that it is the farthest of the three from the downtown core and is the least pedestrian-friendly because of that distance. An inter-modal center to include rail service could be built later, as the time for rail service gets nearer, Galyon and city officials believe.

The Main Street site is “in the middle of the three costwise,” Galyon estimates, “and it could potentially eliminate the parking need for the City County building, particularly for the handicapped.” He says there is no land cost there and a center could be built relatively quickly, but that it would keep buses “on the street rather than on site” and could accommodate only 14 buses at a time. It is the closest to the downtown core as defined by the City County Building and the Federal Courthouse and the office complexes around them, but subsoil conditions that affected the City County Building when it was built in the 1970s could also mean deep and costly foundations for it, Galyon says.

The Church Avenue site, which Galyon says best suits the KAT program’s safety and efficiency concerns, would be the most costly. Galyon says TDOT has cleared the site’s use of air rights over the James White Parkway there and doesn’t expect any federal opposition. It would also take the longest to complete and get into operation, but the necessary reconstruction of the Church Avenue Viaduct, which would serve pedestrians using the center, is scheduled for completion in September of 2007, “and we couldn’t get started before then, anyway,” Galyon says.

Buses would enter and depart that center from Hall of Fame Drive, Galyon says. He says the Church Avenue site meets pedestrian needs better than Depot Street without creating the traffic congestion that has brought objections to the Main Street site.

In the end, operating costs, which are still not included in the federal/city budget figures or KAT’s budget, may play a large part in dictating where the transit center goes. How those cost projections will be made and provided for is still an open issue, according to Margie Nichols, the city’s director of communications and government relations. “We’re still looking for the most bang for the buck,” Nichols says.


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