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.”
As the City of Knoxville builds a $57 million Public Safety Complex in North Knoxville, the facility is expected to provide hands-on learning opportunities for students in a new criminal justice program at Fulton High School.
The program is led by teacher Caleb Andrist, a former law enforcement officer with agencies including the Brentwood Police Department. Three courses are currently offered:
Level 1, an introductory course that focuses on policing, the courts and corrections;
Level 2, a hands-on course that covers topics including handcuffing, traffic stops and vehicle searches; and
Level 3, a forensic science course.
Eventually, students who complete all three courses will be able to enroll in a work-based learning course in partnership with the Knoxville Police Department, which will move its headquarters to the new Public Safety Complex when construction is finished.
“When you’re talking about any high school anywhere in America, getting kids to a work-based learning opportunity in criminal justice is going to be difficult,” said Jonathan Egert, principal of the Skilled Professions Small Learning Community at Fulton. “For us, it’s a crossing of the street when that KPD office is open.”
On a recent afternoon, Andrist walked students through the basics of using handcuffs in an arrest situation, then gave pointers as they took turns practicing.
And while issues related to policing can be challenging, Andrist said in an interview that he doesn’t shy away from “the hard stuff”, and that approach builds trust within the classroom.
“If there’s a bad situation in police work we will absolutely talk about that, just as much as we’ll talk about the good stuff. And the kids see that and they know that, and that’s where that trust comes from.”
The approach appears to be paying dividends. Egert said there is a buzz around the program among students, who are seeing a different side of policing than they get on social media.
Alayna Roberson, a Fulton senior who is hoping to study criminology, said Andrist has a way of making the material interesting, and that she has enjoyed the class a lot.
“It made me want to know why people do what they do.”
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