Hardin Valley: Western Education

With Hardin Valley Academy, Knox County Schools opened its first new high school in 40 years. Was it the best way to spend $50 million?

Read about changes at Austin-East.

Ideas like "state of the art" and "high-concept educational philosophy" seem incongruous in the corner of West Knox County, along an isolated stretch of road, where the new Hardin Valley Academy is located. This part of town maintains a very rural feel. There are a few new developments nearby (just behind the new school, a tiny enclave of brick mini-mansions has recently popped up), a mid-century ranch house here and there, and, of course, Hardin Valley Elementary just next door. But most of the surrounding landscape is made up of tree and grass-covered hills, some of which edge right up to the school itself.

In 2003, what is now Hardin Valley Academy was hatched as a vague notion that for about two years was just called "the new West Knox County high school" by school board members and media alike. The concept came out of a need to alleviate crowding at Farragut, Karns, and Bearden High Schools.

Now, though, after five years, that vague notion has finally turned into a $50 million brick, mortar, glass, and metal reality, complete with its very own state-of-the-art geothermal heating system and high-concept educational philosophy.

Hardin Valley Academy is the first new high school built by Knox County Schools in 40 years, since the 1968 completion of South Doyle High (then called, simply, Doyle High).

It's also the first time the "academy" model has been implemented in a Knox County school. The model employs "small learning communities," or academies, where children can pick their own interest area and concentrate their studies there. The four academies at Hardin Valley are Liberal Arts; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math; Law, Business, and Public Affairs; and Health Sciences. It also employs teacher collaboration areas, which, instead of a traditional classroom model, puts the school's 63 certified teachers into large communal rooms. The theory is that the new arrangement will allow teachers to work together more easily and become less insular.

"It focuses on relationships between the instructors and the students and a rigorous instruction and high standards," says KCS superintendent Dr. James McIntyre.

There's 275,000 square feet of new stuff, including a 64-classroom school building, a baseball diamond, a football field, a 2,100-seat gym, and an expansive parking lot with nearly 1,000 spaces, sitting atop the recently-not-farmland 50-acre lot in the recently-more-suburban-than-rural Hardin Valley area. The exterior building looks like exactly what you picture when you think modern, nondescript high school: It's two stories of bright red brick and giant windows. The thing is big, and it's a big deal for KCS.

But, some critics, both in and outside of KCS, have raised some questions about the school. Why build in Hardin Valley? Is it worth the debt to the school system and the county? Are more troubled schools being ignored?

Subsidized Sprawl?

Hardin Valley Principal Sallee Reynolds has been running all morning. On Monday, the first day of school for KCS, she, as the new principal of the district's newest school, is very busy. Sitting in a small conference room in the school's administrative offices, she's never far from a walkie-talkie.

Between the media circus at the school—TV stations, newspaper reporters, and a full four-hour broadcast of The Hallerin Hilton Hill Morning Show—and all the little problems that are bound to arise on the first day in a brand new school building—none of the students know where their classes are located, for example—she can't sit down for more than a few minutes at a time.

Then, there's another issue. She and Assistant Principal George Ashe have to coordinate the student count, which is going on district-wide throughout this week.

"Right now I can say we're right around 1,200," she says. That's about 100 more than she anticipated last spring. When the school was first introduced and approved, she says, she expected "maybe three or four kids."

"There was a lot of negativity early on," she says.

A lot of that negativity came as a result of the location of the school. When the KCS district was rezoned last year to accommodate Hardin Valley, many parents were reluctant to register their children there. In part, it was based on the relatively remote location of the building.

Some critics, like Farragut parent Pamela Treacy in her "School Matters" blog on knoxnews.com, have suggested that locating a school in a formerly rural part of Hardin Valley, which required an extension of utilities, amounts to the school district subsidizing sprawl. Knox County Board of Education member Sam Anderson, who represents District 1, which includes Austin-East, has also criticized new buildings in suburban parts of the county in media reports, saying that KCS should focus more of its infrastructure investments in older neighborhoods in the county.

Hardin Valley was suggested by then-school board chair Dan Murphy as a relatively inexpensive place to buy land in West Knox County. According to school board documents, Knoxville's Community Development Corporation was chosen to find and negotiate for the purchase of the site. The land was purchased in mid-2005, in two separate tracts, for $2.55 million altogether.

Treacy says that the rezoning went deeper into Farragut than originally intended in order to "create a new place to live."

"In the original quadrant, there would have been only 350 kids at a Hardin Valley school," says Treacy. "We counted the subdivisions in the area, and there just weren't any kids there."

Treacy has two children in Farragut schools. She lives within the new boundaries for Hardin Valley, but her older son is a junior at Farragut High, and thus can choose to stay there to finish out. Her daughter can choose to go to Farragut as well when she starts high school next year because she will have a sibling there.

"[Knoxville/Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission] just couldn't find the growth, so they said, ‘We'll take your kids and move them from a school that's 4.6 miles away to a school that's 9.6 miles away," Treacy says. "From a commercial real estate perspective, you never would have picked that site."

Where's Help Most Needed?

Judging by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) scores for the county, it does seem as if the money and the new educational model could have been better employed elsewhere.

Overcrowding at West Knox County schools does not seem to have affected their students' test scores or graduation rates significantly, at least when it comes to Bearden and Farragut, which have two of the highest graduation rates in the county at 88.4 percent and 93.3 percent, respectively, for the 2007 graduating class. The state goal is 90 percent. Additionally, both schools met their adequate yearly progress (AYP) goals in math and reading last year. Students tested above 90 percent proficient and advanced.

Karns High School, on the other hand, only had an 80.3 percent graduation rate for 2007, and has been placed on NCLB's High Priority List. However, it has passed its AYP goals in both subject areas outright.

So, it may raise questions to members of other zones in Knox County, particularly zones for consistently low-performing schools like Austin-East and Fulton, which had graduation rates of 67.8 percent and 60.7 percent, respectively, in 2007. Why was this huge investment made in the area that seems to need it the least?

McIntyre says he stands behind the decision.

"We located the school, as I understand it, where people thought the demand was," he says. "The fact that we're using that opportunity to create an academy structure that has small learning communities and high expectations and rigorous curriculum, I'm not going to apologize for that. We took the opportunity when we built a new school to reinforce a great education using the building that we built. And again, I'm not going to apologize for that."

The Counts Are In

As of this year, the school has only freshmen, sophomores, and juniors.

"We really weren't looking to register seniors," says McIntyre. "The assumption was just that they would want to finish up at their current school."

Reynolds says she expects to be operating at near capacity within two years, drawing primarily from students who, until this year, would have attended the overcrowded Farragut, Karns, or Bearden schools.

"We've needed this for about 10 years now," says KCS spokesman Russ Oaks.

While Karns, at 1,600 students this year, has lost some 400 students to Hardin Valley, say school officials, Hardin Valley has not alleviated crowding at Bearden or Farragut.

"It looks like we have about 1,975 (students) this year," says Bearden High School Principal John Bartlett. "So, that's over last year."

Bearden, says Bartlett, actually gained about 250 students from Farragut as a result of rezoning.

Farragut High School, which was at about 2,100 students last year, is down to about 1,950 now, says principal Mike Reynolds. However, the classroom student-to-teacher ratio has actually gone up, since district-wide budget adjustments have forced the school to cut 14 teaching positions, causing the school to lose 84 class sections. Nine of those positions, says Reynolds, were held by teachers who were retiring or transferring to another school. Five were active positions that were relocated to other schools in the district.

The Budget

"Who could have seen this budget issue coming, though?" asks Mike Reynolds.

Knox County Schools this year requested $390 million from the county, a hike of $33 million from last year. The proposed increase was to pay for a 2 percent pay raise for teachers, funding for the reconstitution of Fulton High School and Austin-East, as well $4.4 million for the new positions at Hardin Valley. The county only gave KCS $370 million, meaning that KCS had to tighten its belt in other ways.

One of those was to eliminate 52 vacant positions throughout the district, which absorbed most of the cost of the 102 brand new positions at Hardin Valley, according to KCS Finance Director Ron McPherson.

"Essentially, it amounted to a reallocation of resources that resulted in a net cost increase to the budget of roughly $1.76 million," McPherson writes in an e-mail.

The county holds a debt of over $600 million, according to budget documents. This year's debt payments are $62 million. Total school construction costs account for $20 million of that, though that number includes all outstanding construction debts, not just Hardin Valley, which is being paid for through a series of bond issues, to be entirely repaid in 2034.

County Commission member Craig Leuthold was quoted in the Knoxville News Sentinel in June as blaming the large debt payments partly on construction costs for the new, large state-of-the-art school.

"I think that the taxpayers and the parents who've been in the building and the community leaders who have been in the building will see that this is a great investment," says McIntyre, walking through the building on Monday, his first tour since classes began. "We had a lot of parents at the open house last week. I talked to a lot of students. They are universally just thrilled about it."