Inside Knox County's New STEM High School

A quick tour of the revamped L&N station

Knox County's trying something new, in several respects, next month when it opens its new STEM high school, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math "academy," as it's known—the only one of its kind in Tennessee. Enabled by a $3 million "Race to the Top" contribution from the state of Tennessee, as well as unusual assistance from the city, which for the most part has not been in the school business in several decades, the school will welcome its first students in just a couple of weeks. It's the first high school downtown in 60 years, located in the 1905 L&N train station at Henley and Summit Hill.

Unused as a passenger station since 1968, but renovated for restaurants and other attractions during the 1982 World's Fair, the L&N, known for its stained-glass windows and Beaux-Arts brick and marble work, has been an appealing dilemma for years. Since the Fair it's been used in bits and pieces as offices and studios and event space, but never to its full capacity. Restaurants have opened and closed in the space. A couple of years ago, the L&N seemed set to be the next main public library, a deal that ultimately fell through. Segregated from downtown's pedestrian boom by Henley Street, several lanes wide there, the L&N sometimes seemed destined to remain mainly an interesting artifact.

Last year, through complex financing partly promoted by then-Mayor Bill Haslam, Knox County Schools entered into a 20-year agreement with the L&N's private ownership to use it as a STEM school in cooperation with the national Battelle research organization. With surprising speed, a thorough multi-million-dollar renovation has transformed the L&N into what's looking more and more like a public high school, albeit a posh one. The old waiting room on the eastern wing, still equipped with original chandeliers, is the main entrance now with a lobby that also holds the principal's office (the first chief will be former West High teacher Becky Ashe). The stained-glass-tinged women's waiting room, one of the building's prettiest spaces, with an almost holy hush, will be a small high-tech "media room." And the grand old main lobby will be the assembly room, opening toward a cafeteria. On nice days, students may eat outside, alongside the grand staircase down to where trains once departed. Upstairs classrooms will offer a view of World's Fair Park. One that faces road will be a darkened distance-learning lab, offering lectures from teachers in faraway places.

The station-school was opened to the press for the first time on Tuesday afternoon. What people notice, upon entering the L&N for the first time since the renovation, is the light. During its office-building years, it never seemed so open and bright.

"This is the way it was in 1905," says Principal Ashe, boasting that they have taken pains to restore the original colors to the buildings, even replacing tiny tiles that make up the mosaic floor. She talks about the history of the building almost as if it will be part of the curriculum to an extent one might not expect of a science-and-engineering sort of school.

"People active in science find inspiration in looking at the past," says Ashe, a former biology teacher at West High. "This building just exudes inspiration."

Though open to all Knox County high-school students with an interest in math and science, students are chosen by lottery. On August 15, it will welcome 180 high-school teenagers, a number that will grow to a capacity of 720 students by the time the project is filled out in the 2013-14 school year. It will be a new option for Knox County high-school students, and it will add another layer of complexity to downtown.