Knoxville in 2008: School News

In Good Standing, Except...

When we learned that the cold, inhuman calculus of our underfunded national school standards program deemed Knox County Schools largely acceptable, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Then we took a closer look and, as it turns out, eight of our 13 high schools are on the No Child Left Behind "High Priority" list. This means that, for at least two years in a row, they've failed to meet benchmarks in state-issued standardized tests or target graduation rates. Shockingly, Farragut High School was not among them.

If these schools remain on the high priority list, they face all sorts of penalties under federal law. So what to do? Maybe further expensive "restructuring" is in order? Or how about a slash-and-burn state takeover? Or hell, just shut them down. Kids just love a really, really, really long bus ride. Either way, new Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre has his hands full.

Separate But Not Equal

Aug. 11, 2008, a new start for two Knoxville high schools. Austin-East had long needed an overhaul, flunking No Child Left Behind standards six years running and threatened with reverting to state control. So the school system "reconstituted" A-E, somehow finding $610,000 in its oppressed budget to provide the troubled school with teacher training and a reorganization that included placing the students into three "neighborhoods" or "academies" for instruction and enhanced intervention for struggling students. Oh, wait. All but $80,000 of that money came from the feds, not Knox County, but at least we did find an extra $80,000 for this school, because all our students are important, even at schools with a student body that's 88 percent economically disadvantaged, graduated just 67.8 percent in 2007—up from 51.6 percent in 2003—and had 10 percent who couldn't pass the Biology 1 Gateway required for graduation. Oops, not true. Guess even the $80,000 came from the non-profit, faith-based Cornerstone of Knoxville.

But in the school system's defense, a bunch of local dignitaries and the mayor did show up for a ribbon cutting and a bunch of speeches honoring this new start for A-E. Oh no, wait, that would be Hardin Valley Academy, number two among Knoxville's new high school initiatives this year—as in brand new, 275,000 square feet, a 2,100-seat gym, built for students from West Knoxville with $50 million of Knox County's money, also involving "smaller learning communities." No need for Cornerstone to chip in, because this school was needed to alleviate overcrowding, not to overcome any sort of academic deficit. In fact, even though no one would say (OK, maybe school board member Sam Anderson did mention something along these lines) the new school wasn't necessarily the highest-priority use of that county money, two of the overcrowded schools, Farragut and Bearden, still managed a 93 percent attendance and 92 and 90 percent graduation rate, respectively, right up to the time the last overcrowded class graduated in spring 2008.

Designated Dress Code

As part of their "how 'bout more graduation parties and fewer freshman skip days?" restructuring, both Fulton and Austin-East implemented dress codes at the start of the school year. Administrators somehow pulled off this process without overt mutiny, though some snickering could not be muffled and at least one Webb student accidentally sat at a table not populated with his friends at the mall food court after school. At A-E, students now sport collared shirts, in red, blue, black, or white, tucked into black or tan slacks or knee-length skirts or shorts, belt required. Fulton's folks wear the collared shirts, too, but theirs are color-coded by "learning community," maroon for freshman academy, and so forth.

Eight Men Out

Days before they were scheduled to play in the state quarterfinals in November, eight Austin-East football players were charged with the theft of $688.91 of merchandise from a Marshalls department store (the two over-18 students, A-E offensive lineman Dana L. Littlejohn, 18, and running back Jared Anthony Neal, 19, were charged with felony shoplifting). The charges led to their one-game suspension from football, news delivered by Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre himself, which effectively ended any state champ hopes for the Roadrunners. The Replacements fell to Catholic, 45 to zip. The suspects allegedly ran out of the store with the clothing, but the arrest warrant said nothing about whether it met A-E uniform requirements (see above).

Dancing Away

One of the first victims of withering state funds for the Knoxville UT campus was its dance program. Intermittent since its inception in the 1930s—at one time a major, then a concentration, and now a minor as it enters its final semester in the spring—the charms of dance seem to have eluded UT leadership. It was never even embraced by the art or theater departments, left to fend for itself in phys ed. Unlike some other departments that could skip town unnoticed, the lack of a dance program is likely to be felt throughout the community. The fact that there were young people here, with or acquiring dance skills, made community dance programs conceivable. Time will tell if beneficiaries such as Circle Modern Dance and Momentum Dance Lab suffer from a dearth of dancing students.

New UT Buildings

The Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, which has existed for five years as a cadre of academics who have organized high-profile lectures and political studies, finished construction on a swank new brick-and-mortar center at the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Melrose. The monument-like building, the biggest new academic building on UT's campus in many years, includes an auditorium, classrooms, an interactive museum, and a library to house the papers of the former senator and Reagan chief of staff whom the building honors. Opening day was on Halloween, and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was there, along with Baker and several other mostly Republican dignitaries to do the honors. It now looks like kids who are out on Cumberland Avenue for a good time but can't get anybody to take their IDs will at least have another option.

The James A. Haslam II Business Building (when did we start using the full IRS names of honorees for naming buildings?) was completed, barely, by the end of the year. The $46 million project, enabled by the Pilot-founding honoree, is basically an all-new building, but was constructed behind the preserved brick facades of the Glocker Building, built in the 1950s in an old-fashioned collegiate style. The complex-looking building at the corner of Volunteer Boulevard and Andy Holt is scheduled for a grand opening on Jan. 6.