Plans for a Knoxville STEM School Push Ahead

Despite lingering questions, a high school is scheduled to open this fall in the historic train station

The Knox County school board filled in many of the details concerning a proposed math and science magnet school set to occupy the venerable L&N Station downtown at its Jan. 12 meeting. Yet somehow the big picture didn't get much clearer.

The board approved the L&N site unanimously, clearing the way for renovations to begin in March. The science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-focused high school is slated to open Aug. 15. Superintendent Jim McIntyre announced current district executive director of curriculum Becky Ashe would take the reins as its principal.

All good. Except that, despite the board's unanimous approval, some members expressed qualms about the project and its seemingly frenetic pacing, the proposal having only been set forth in October.

And about its cost. The financially strapped school system had formerly seemed intent on staying close to the $2 million limit it has allocated to the school for 2011-2012 via federal Race to the Top school reform funding. McIntyre said in November, "If we come back and say it's going to cost $5 or $10 million to renovate this building and make it a functional school, then it's obviously much less attractive."

Nonetheless, McIntyre was apparently undaunted when the latest estimate came in at $5.6 million, or $6 million, depending on what you believe. Budget documents presented to board members and available for public viewing on the school board website give the $5.6 million estimate, but board member Cindy Buttry said that doesn't include basement renovations, which will likely push the total to $6 million.

Where will that come from? In addition to the $2 million Race funding, the schools are hoping the local Great Schools Partnership will kick in roughly $500,000 from private donations. "We just got a challenge grant for up to $250,000, which is great, but which puts pressure on me to go out and get the rest," says Great Schools President Buzz Thomas. "But I feel like we've got two or three good prospects."

And beyond that, there's a historic rehabilitation tax credit—worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $900,000—the project can receive by bringing in an investor. According to Kim Trent of Knox Heritage, who helped point the way to the tax credit, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is working to find potential investors.

"They've had a couple meetings so far, moving forward," she says. "They did the same thing with the Tennessee Theatre renovation and brought $6 million to the project."

In a perfect world, though, that still leaves well more than $2 million dollars that will probably have to come out of the school system's capital budget, probably by pushing other projects back. The new school will also require about $1 million in annual operating funds, although the city has pledged $200,000 a year to the project in redirected debt payments from a complicated financing arrangement.

But what the new magnet lacks in fiscal certainty, it at least tries to compensate with the ambition of its academic programming. Ashe, a respected former biology, chemistry, and ecology teacher at West High School, already has strong ideas about the curriculum. "We've been working on the concept ever since Dr. McIntyre came," she says. "We've conducted focus groups, talked to parents, talked to educators from all across the state.

"What we're thinking is kids will get the interdisciplinary basics. But whereas they'll have different types of writing in their English curriculum, there will be an emphasis on technical writing. There will also be STEM classes for each grade: STEM 1-4. These will be project-based classes where the students will work in teams on projects from a variety of disciplines.

"Hopefully, by their senior years, the STEM class will take off-site to some work-based experience. That will depend on the community around us."

Other long-range plans for the STEM include a program whereby students could take college classes for dual credit and, should they choose, earn enough to have an Associate's Degree within reach by the end of the summer term following their May high school graduation. There are also possible internships with STEM partners at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

"At some point, we foresee our students being able to do authentic research alongside graduate students, and contributing in a meaningful way," Ashe says.

For now, the magnet will open with only a ninth and 10th grade, a total of 200 students; its junior and senior classes will be added over the next two years. The school's eventual capacity will be 800 students.

One thing the magnet will probably not have is a traditional athletics program, given its location and lack of space. "We're not saying we won't have any athletics; that will be open for discussion," says Ashe. "But given the facilities and size of the student body, I don't foresee fielding a football team, for instance."

And as for parking, school spokesperson Melissa Copelan says there are 125 spots assigned for the L&N, with a number of other spots in close walking distance. She says the school system is looking into other options should they be necessary, but that they "don't foresee parking being an issue."

Should it all come together, Thomas says Knox County has much to look forward to. "Jim McIntyre and I went and saw a program like this work out at Ohio State University, and it was inspiring," he says. "It was very interactive, very laboratory-based. The students were on the college campus as often as they were at the magnet. We'd like ours to be the best of its kind here in the Southeastern United States."