Despite Promise, Proposed School for Knoxville Center Raises Skepticism

It's been many years since Simon Property Group attempted to rebrand East Towne Mall by changing its name to Knoxville Center, but it's still "East Towne" to residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. They're not scared to use the "E" word. And whatever it's called, Ronnie Collins, president of the large and active Alice Bell/Spring Hill Neighborhood Association, isn't sold on the idea of putting a high school for struggling students there.

On January 31, after reading about a tentative plan to locate an "alternative" high school in the mall, he made his displeasure at being left out of the planning process known to his membership and various elected officials in an e-mail blast.

"Being the neighborhood association most affected by this, it would have been nice to have been included in the meetings," he wrote. "The only way we found out about all this was from the news media. We could have had a representative at the meetings to help keep our members informed. … It is not the first time we have been left out of having a voice in events affecting our Neighborhood, and I'm sure it won't be the last."

The proposed school would be part of an effort by a foundation affiliated with Simon Property Group, which owns both Knoxville Center and West Town along with 380 other properties nationwide. The Simon Youth Foundation has worked with school systems to turn vacant store space into classrooms in many Simon malls. The space is provided free.

But Collins, like many of his neighbors, believes that his part of town has been stigmatized by the perception that it is an undesirable place to live, work, or do business. He attributes part of that stigma to the Richard Yoakley Transitional School on Washington Pike, which serves some 225 students who have been kicked out of other schools for various offenses ranging from zero-tolerance offenses to persistent misconduct. While he doesn't explicitly use the term "dumping ground," it is clear that's what he fears the area could become.

He has an ally in newly elected City Councilman Nick Della Volpe, who reacted strongly to Collins' call to arms and fired off an e-mail to Knox County School Superintendent James McIntyre, charging that the school system treats the East Knoxville as "a stepchild."

"Rational Planning would suggest that Knox County Schools build high quality regional schools in every quadrant of the county," he wrote, "so that the people can feel secure that their kids will get a quality education where they live. Instead, year after year, we read how the next new school will be built somewhere in West Knox County. The present system rewards abandonment of the inner city and older communities by its westward-ho bias.

"Oh, by the way," added Della Volpe, who has been raising hell and hackles since he took office in December, "we East Knoxvillians are taxpayers too—we pay both City and County Taxes. Do we need a taxpayer revolt in this town to get decent treatment from the school board? I hope not. Instead, let's work together to rebuild our precious older neighborhoods and stop encouraging leapfrog sprawl west. The next Mozart or Einstein may well live here. Let's get them the education they need."

Both Collins and Della Volpe were present at the March 1 school board workshop to hear about the planned school at the mall. What they heard was a proposal from Rick Markoff, CEO of the Simon Youth Foundation, to provide 6,000 square feet for an innovative school to serve students who do not, for a variety of reasons, fit the mold of the typical high school student. Markoff said the foundation runs 25 schools in 12 states, has enrolled more than 2,500 young people, and boasts a 1:15 teacher/student ratio and a 90 percent graduation rate. He said the lease alone will be worth more than $1 million and that the foundation will foot the bill for one-third of the build-out costs (the other two-thirds will be shared equally by Knox County and private donors).

Last August, the Simon Youth Foundation started its first Tennessee mall school at Opry Mills in Nashville. So far, Markoff said, it has been a great success and has graduated 53 students who would otherwise have ended up dropping out. School Board Chair Indya Kincannon, who represents the Knoxville Center area, said she has checked out the Opry Mills school with Nashville colleagues, and they enthusiastically endorse it.

"This is for kids who have gotten off-track," Markoff said. "It's for students for whom the traditional high school experience hasn't worked. We give them the opportunity to have a different experience."

He was backed up by Fritz Polite, an assistant professor of sport management in the department of Exercise, Sport and Leisure Studies at the University of Tennessee who recently made news by arranging a working trip to the Super Bowl for Team UT, a group of graduate students in a dual-degree program to get MBAs and advanced degrees in sports management. Polite said he is exploring ways for UT to become involved in the mall school, and suggested that programs like the UT Culinary Institute could make valuable contributions.

But another skeptical eastsider weighed in toward the end of the session. Patrick Richmond, newly appointed to warm the seat resigned by disgraced 8th District school board member Bill Phillips until this summer's elections, had been sworn in for little more than an hour when he started peppering Markoff and McIntyre with questions (most of which had already been answered) about the mall school. A former Knox County Education Association board member, Richmond got particularly cranky after Kincannon offered a resolution that she said was drafted "to give this board the same powers to form a flexible, creative innovative school that a private charter school entity would have."

"I totally disagree that we need a charter school," Richmond said, refusing to be soothed by Kincannon's explanations that the school would be still under Knox County Schools' control.

"The point of this resolution is so that you don't have to give it away to a charter organization," McIntyre said.

But Richmond was relentless: "I still disagree with anything with the title ‘charter,' because we need to be the ones doing it. The Simon project sounds like a great idea, but we're the ones driving this project… let's call it Knox County Schools, period. No charter."

The last speakers of the night were Collins and Lisa Starbuck, president of the Northeast Knox Preservation Association, who voiced concerns about the stability of the mall, which, like most other retail outlets, has taken some serious hits over the past two years. Simon representatives reassured the neighborhood representatives that the company has plans to strengthen Knoxville Center, and that the alternative school will be an important component of that.

Later, Starbuck tweeted on her Twitter feed that she had decided to support the plan. Collins also appeared to be softening, and said his doubts were partially assuaged by the explanations he heard. But he still has concerns about adding a couple of hundred teenagers to the mall population, and he's waiting for a meeting between McIntyre and the community in early April to render his final verdict.

"The first story that came out in the paper said an alternative school was moving into the mall," Collins said. "But really, it's not an alternative school in comparison to what we've got at Richard Yoakley."