When Kacy Helton left the banking industry to become a business teacher at Fulton High School, the Falcons were already committed to career-oriented small learning communities.
So when Helton got an opportunity to help launch the 865 Academies at Carter High School, she jumped at the chance.
“Academies give so many opportunities for kids to do some really cool things,” Helton said. “I can literally go to Fulton kids that I’ve taught over the past four years and say ‘What are you doing now, what are the skills that you learned in high school that impacted you?’, and they can tell me.”
Last year, Helton returned to Carter, her alma mater, as a marketing teacher, and she now serves as the school’s Academy coach. Carter launched its Freshman Academy this year and will announce its career-oriented Academies and pathways in the coming months.
Academy coaches play a key role in the implementation of the initiative. They lead student ambassadors, coordinate campus and workplace visits, and serve as the school’s liaison to business and community partners.
For Helton, bridging the gap between classroom instruction and workplace success was a natural fit, given her journey as a self-described “non-educator educator.”
After graduating from Carter, she attended Walters State, Pellissippi State, and the University of Tennessee, eventually leaving school to get her real estate license in 2007. The financial crisis of 2008 nudged her out of real estate and into a position as a teller at Knoxville TVA Employees Credit Union, where she went on to become a corporate trainer.
In that role, she also worked with schools and students, including a project to help Carter set up a school store. She also resumed her college coursework, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in Talent Development, before shifting gears to become a teacher and earning a master’s in education.
Helton said she’s a firm believer in allowing students to get career and college experiences at an early age and said the Carter community has been excited and supportive about the Academies initiative. As the Hornets launch that journey, Helton has been busy with the transition from planning to implementation – shaping academy proposals, building student ambassador teams, advocating for CTE teachers, and more.
But in the midst of project management, her inspiration comes from opening doors for students: “I’m excited about giving these kids opportunities, that is my go-to … And I see so many potential experiences and opportunities coming out of Academies. My daughter is a freshman this year and I’m really excited that she’s at the beginning of this process.”
Want to support the work of the 865 Academies as a business or community partner? Visit knoxschools.org/academies to learn more!
On a recent morning, 18 people from a variety of career fields – including auto repair, construction, nursing, and culinary arts – gathered in a South Knoxville classroom.
While their professional backgrounds varied widely, their goal was the same: Learning to be an effective teacher.
The attendees were part of the KCS Educator Preparation Program (EPP), which trains industry professionals to be teachers, and provides financial incentives to help them receive certification.
The goal is to not only cast a wide net in identifying and recruiting outstanding educators, but also to find non-traditional candidates with expertise in career fields that are in high demand among employers.
A good example is Griffin Vann, who has been a registered nurse for 21 years and last fall began teaching health science, medical therapeutics, and nursing education at Fulton High School.
Vann said that as a mother of young children, she wanted to be on their schedule, and that she has always loved working with kids. As part of the Educator Prep Program, she works as a teacher at Fulton, while attending several after-hours classes each semester. During the summer, her cohort also attends a week of intensive training.
Vann said the program has been challenging, and helped her realize how hard teachers work.
“There’s a lot of organization behind the scenes that you don’t think about when you just go sit in a class,” she said. “When I was in school, I had no idea how much behind-the-scenes work goes into a lecture or a lab or a class session … This is teaching you how to do that, so that when I stand up in front of a classroom I am confident and organized and I know what I’m doing.”
The EPP training sessions are designed to help participants sharpen skills that they’re already using in the classroom, and gain insights from their peers.
During a recent session at the Sarah Simpson Center, instructor Ulla Carr – the district’s EPP supervisor – asked about the best way to re-engage students who have been working in small groups. The attendees joked about bad ideas – an air horn, for example – while also discussing serious strategies, such as a raised hand or short clap that would prompt students to respond with a similar action.
At the end of the discussion, participants took several minutes to journal on laptops, answering discussion questions about issues and challenges related to problem-based learning.
Carr said participants in the KCS program join the district – or work for other school districts – using a practitioner occupational license, but after three years they move to a regular professional license.
The KCS program is less expensive than many traditional college programs, and teachers who work for the district for three years are reimbursed for the full cost – which not only benefits the participants, but helps KCS meet its retention goals.
Carr said the program is also aligned with the district’s 865 Academies initiative, which aims to prepare high school students for enrolling in college or trade school, enlisting in service to their country, or finding high-wage employment immediately after high school.
Whether a student is interested in a college-bound pathway such as Information Technology or STEM, or a career pathway such as automotive repair or cosmetology, Carr said teachers with industry experience can help instill a sense of passion for that field.
Moving from an industry position to the classroom is also an investment in the broader community. Lauren Longmire, director of regional enhancement for the Knoxville Chamber, said the EPP is an important way that Knox County is taking tangible steps to retain and prepare the future workforce.
“By providing a high-quality, low-cost training option, the KCS EPP is making it possible for professionals to leverage their industry experience in a K-12 setting,” Longmire said. “At a time when the nature of work is shifting, it’s exciting to see the school system find new and dynamic ways to invest in both our current workforce and future workforce.”
Rob Stivers, market executive of Regions Bank and the Knoxville Chamber’s vice chair of talent, said the 865 Academies are the future of secondary schools within KCS, adding that “I’m excited to see that KCS has a program to help people translate their industry experience to catalyze the impact of the 865 Academies.”
At Carter High School, one educator who is leveraging that hard-earned experience is Jess Sherrod, who teaches welding as part of the school’s advanced manufacturing pathway.
Sherrod worked in industry for more than 20 years, eventually becoming a certified welding inspector and working in management positions at facilities in Jefferson City and Morristown.
He said it’s difficult to find good employees with the necessary skills for success – showing up on time, using tools like a tape measure efficiently, and working respectfully with colleagues “even in situations where it’s not really that calm.”
But Sherrod also has been impressed by the leadership qualities of students he’s worked with in the classroom, and is excited about helping give them a foundation for success.
“When given the chance and the opportunity and the understanding, these kids will take the lead, most of them will,” he said.
Interested in moving from an industry position into the classroom? The KCS Educator Preparation Program is accepting applications, and candidates who enroll by July 21 can participate in the 2023-24 cohort. For more information, visit our website.
Jaxon Alford has always enjoyed working with cars, and the guidance of a teacher at Central High School has given him a head start on a career in the automotive industry.
Alford is a senior at Central, but during his sophomore year he enrolled in Maintenance and Light Repair, the first in a series of classes taught by Tracy Kelly.
Alford said the class helped sharpen his skills in auto repair, and he enjoyed the chance to work with his hands.
“It’s pretty rewarding when you find a problem, take it apart and get it back together and it’s running perfect,” he said.
But Alford’s repair work isn’t just for school credit. Central had an existing partnership with North Knox Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, which offers apprenticeships to talented students. Alford began working at the dealership’s service department a year ago, and has already obtained his Level 1 certification as a technician.
Josh DeHart, of North Knox Chrysler, said Alford is “the model candidate” for the apprenticeship program, and that he will be equipped to work as a full-time technician when he graduates from high school.
He is also on track to achieve additional certifications from Chrysler, which will provide skills that are in high demand throughout the industry.
DeHart said the apprenticeship has been beneficial for the dealership, not only because of the quality of Alford’s work but also because students bring a different perspective to the shop.
“He asks a lot of questions, he’s very inquisitive,” said DeHart. “So it changes the way our managers and supervisors present things because he’s asking questions … It’s definitely caused us to look at how we’re doing things and how do we attract students like him to get into this business?”
The partnership also reflects The 865 Academies initiative, which was launched by Knox County Schools last year and will create career-themed academies in district high schools. The goal is to prepare students for success after high school, whether that means enrolling in college or trade school, enlisting in service to their country, or finding employment in a high-wage career with an entrepreneurial mindset.
Next week, eight schools in the initiative’s first cohort – including Central – will announce the academies to be offered in the coming years.
Alford said it has made a big difference to learn from a teacher who had previous experience in the automotive industry, and who enjoys sharing that knowledge – “I don’t think I could ask for a better instructor.”
When Monica Angelelli first considered becoming a licensed teacher, the goal seemed out of reach.
Angelelli had been a stay-at-home mother for 14 years before becoming a substitute teacher and then a teaching assistant at Farragut Intermediate School.
The thought of earning a teaching certification, she recalled, “was something that I didn’t know I wanted until I got here. And when it came up I thought, ‘No, I cannot do this. I have four children of my own at home, I’m very busy, I can’t do grad school, I can’t do work at the same time.’”
But her friend and co-worker, Karol Harper, urged Angelelli to consider Tennessee’s “Grow Your Own” teacher apprenticeship, which provides financial assistance and a flexible schedule for TA’s who want to become full-fledged teachers.
Now, Angelelli is on track to earn her license in December of 2023 and a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2024.
“I would not have been able to do it … if I had to quit and not have an income,” she said. “If I would have had to pay for it myself, there’s no way. So it has really changed my life completely.”
Earlier this year, Tennessee became the first state to receive federal approval for a permanent teacher apprentice program. Along with that approval came a federal grant that allows participants to earn their master’s degree at no cost, while also keeping their job and benefits with the district.
Alex Moseman, executive director of talent acquisition for Knox County Schools, said the program allows TA’s who are already doing great work with students to take the next step.
“The ability to have that pathway, where they’re able to continue to work, have classes that are structured around their work schedule, experiences that are embedded in their work day, at no cost to the employee is really really important,” he said. “This program is going to open up a lot of opportunities for folks who really have a heart for giving back to the students in Knox County but might not have had the opportunity, or the barriers were just too great at one point in time.”
As school districts across the country work to attract and retain high-quality teachers – including those in high-need areas such as special education and English Language Learners – the apprenticeship is an innovative approach to identifying talented educators.
Karol Harper, a colleague of Angelelli at Farragut Intermediate, is also participating in the apprenticeship. Harper has an older brother with special needs and said that working in special education was a natural fit for her.
She learned about the apprenticeship program when another participant came to her school for an interview, and said she was excited and relieved to hear about the opportunity.
Asked what she would say to another KCS educator who is considering the program, Harper was emphatic: “Go for it. Don’t hesitate, just sign up and everything will fall into place.”
When Vicke Pyles signed her retirement papers in 2019, the veteran educator’s hands were shaking.
After teaching for more than 30 years, she felt that the financial advantages of retirement were too good to pass up – but leaving the classroom was difficult. That fall, Pyles went to Charlotte with her grandson during the week that teachers returned to school, because she knew that being away from the classroom would be painful.
But after reading a lot of books and realizing that “you can only clean the house so much”, she got a call from a friend who said West Valley Middle School needed a supply teacher.
That temporary assignment was followed by others, and earlier this year Pyles began researching options for a full-time return. In the process, she learned about a new state incentive program that allows eligible teacher retirees to benefit from two new options:
Returning to the classroom at a 100% salary level, while still receiving 70% of their retirement benefits; or
Returning to the classroom in a hard-to-staff area at an 85% salary level, while receiving 100% of their retirement benefits.
With that in mind, Pyles chose the second option and returned to the classroom this fall as a math teacher at Holston Middle School.
In an interview, she said that “going back has been awesome”, adding that “A lot of my friends thought I was crazy for going back, but I said, ‘This is me.’”
The incentive program is aimed at addressing a teacher shortage across the state, and fits with the Knox County Schools priority of “Great Educators In Every School.”
In addition to the new pathways, retired KCS teachers have the option of returning to part-time positions (of 120 days or less) while still receiving 100% of their retirement benefits.
Jennifer Hemmelgarn, assistant superintendent of business and talent for KCS, said the district is thinking creatively to meet classroom staffing needs.
“Veteran educators are a tremendous resource and we value their skills and experience,” she said. “Our hope is that these incentives will eliminate barriers for retired teachers who miss the classroom and want to continue making a difference in the lives of students.”