Following a successful run of Moana Jr., the Holston Middle School Show Choir has begun rehearsals for their first summer performance of Matilda the Musical, a show made possible by a Tennessee Arts Commission grant.
Natalee Elkins, the HMS choral director and Show Choir director, and Taylor Branson, an HMS school counselor and Show Choir production coordinator, applied for the grant last year, and after a months-long application and interview process, they were finally able to bring their vision to life.
“We’ve had the rights for this show for three years. It was supposed to happen pre-COVID,” Elkins said. “We knew that if it was to come to fruition, we were going to need some outside funding. We applied for the grant last year, and, honestly, I don’t think we ever thought anything was going to come of it.”
With the additional funding from TAC, the Show Choir directors were able to open auditions to students, teachers, and even professors from across the county. Most of the cast attend schools in the KCS Regions Four and Five, including Holston, Beaumont, Belle Morris, Central, Fulton, Gibbs, Gresham, Shannondale, and Sterchi.
“We did what they call ‘non-traditional casting,’ which is where we are basically looking to not cast based on physical or ethnic traits. We are casting based on who we felt is best for the part,” Elkins said. “We have a diverse cast of kids coming from everywhere which is really fun.”
This unique opportunity has also allowed educators to grace the stage. Elkins and Branson have roles of their own in the musical, Holston Middle Principal Katie Lutton will play the beloved Ms. Honey, and even University of Tennessee math professor Jack Sturm joined the cast.
“Something really neat about Jack – he’s the UT professor – he teaches math now, but he originally was going to be a theater major,” Branson said. “We’re going to use him as that college and career piece, like ‘Look, he has this other job, but he is still able to do this,’ which also ties into the 865 Academies.”
The Holston Show Choir has been performing for over 15 years, and its repertoire includes several condensed versions of popular Disney films. Prior to this season’s Moana Jr. performance, the group staged Into the Woods, Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid, to name a few.
Elkins and Branson are always brainstorming for the next show, but for now, all the focus is on Matilda.
Tickets for Matilda the Musical are on sale now for July 7 – 9. Buy tickets here.
Commencement ceremonies are about to begin, and Knox County Schools is celebrating outstanding students in the Class of 2023. For a full list of this year’s valedictorians, salutatorians, and military commitments, visitknoxschools.org/seniors.
When Angel Hellen learned she was the Career Magnet Academy co-valedictorian, she was shocked.
“It’s not something that I had my eye on, and it’s good to see that sometimes you don’t have to plan for things like this,” the senior said. “You just do the work and that will get you there.”
Hellen originally planned to study nursing, but finishing at the top of her class gave her the confidence to chase a different dream. She is now hoping to pursue a pre-med track at Howard University in Washington, D.C., which is among the country’s most prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
As a first-generation American, her dream to attend Howard is personal.
“Coming to America, I never saw anyone like me. When I came here, I felt super-alone,” she said. “From that experience, I’ve always wanted to go to a historically Black college, just so I can see a different side of things. I just want to see myself in a different environment and see what that would foster out of me.”
Hellen was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Congolese Civil War. After her father died as a result of the violence, Hellen, her mother, and her sisters fled the country to Uganda. She was only four.
Living as refugees in Uganda, her family waited for six years to be granted entrance to the United States as asylum-seekers.
Now in the United States for almost a decade, and after putting in years of work to excel academically, Hellen is hoping to earn enough scholarship support to attend Howard, where she has been accepted for enrollment. But whatever happens, she remains positive.
“Even if I don’t go, just knowing that I had the chance to go is just like, ‘I’ve really set myself up to go to this school,’” she said. “Maybe not financially, but academically, I’ve done everything that I could to put myself in the best position at one of the best schools ever.”
She says she has her support system to thank for her success.
“For me, my whole journey from coming to America to this point, I just look back and see a group of people that have been there for me,” Hellen said.
As commencement ceremonies are about to begin, Knox County Schools is celebrating our dedicated valedictorians and salutatorians. This class is an accomplished group of students who have plans to do great things in their futures. Oliver Hemmelgarn is just one example of the high-achieving class of 2023.
Oliver Hemmelgarn spends most weekends exploring the beauty of the Smoky Mountains. As an avid hiker and mountain biker, he has turned his love of the outdoors into a potential career field.
The West High School environmental club co-president plans to pursue a degree in the STEM field at the prestigious Air Force Academy – if a lacrosse injury doesn’t defer him to UT for a year.
The Air Force Academy only accepts approximately 12 percent of applicants with above-average GPAs and test scores.
For the West High co-valedictorian, acceptance to the school was years in the making.
“I love to learn,” Hemmelgarn said. “I just know it’ll prepare me for the future, and you just have to practice at a lot of things you do to get better at it.”
This love of learning spurred him to participate in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, one of the most intense high school academic programs for students.
Students in the IB program take a series of advanced courses and have to complete a CAS project, short for creativity, activity, and service. Following his environmentalist spirit, Hemmelgarn chose to improve an area of the greenway near West by clearing out invasive species.
He believes this passion for the outdoors can carry over to a career in environmental engineering.
“A lot of it is water resources, so making sure pollutants don’t seep into the main streams. There’s a lot of restoration, a lot of water testing. Some of it’s also just sustainable design and just figuring out how to do the least impact,” he said.
In addition to being outside, Hemmelgarn enjoys being active. He has played lacrosse since elementary school and also hopes to join the AFA mountain biking team to see the beauty of Colorado Springs, where the school is located.
He has faith that lacrosse has prepared him for the military in terms of physicality and that “you also form a brotherhood together,” the attackman said.
Hemmelgarn leaves for Basic Military Training in June, where he will endure six grueling weeks of mental and physical training.
“My cousin told me to think of it, especially basic, like a game where they’re just trying to break you. If you can be able to push yourself to the limits and realize that they don’t hate you, it’s just their job,” he said. “You take your emotions out of it and just struggle through it.”
For a full list of the class of 2023 valedictorians, salutatorians, and military commitments, visit knoxschools.org/seniors.
So-Kno Robo, South-Doyle High School’s robotics team, returned from the FIRST Robotics Competition in Houston with a winning robot and an energized perspective to encourage STEM in South Knoxville.
Often referred to as “Worlds,” the FIRST Robotics Competition welcomes over 600 teams from across the globe to compete in a robotics game.
FIRST releases the game guidelines to the participating teams in January, and the teams have until mid-March to design and build their robots before regional competitions begin.
This year, the game called for the robots to move cones from the floor onto poles and inflatable cubes onto wooden boxes. Several teams crafted robots with arms or elevators to lift and place the game pieces, but So-Kno Robo thought outside the box.
“What we figured out really early is that we could be really consistent if we launch it,” said engineering teacher and So-Kno Robo sponsor Kathleen DeVinney.
This spark of ingenuity led the team to win the Creativity Award in their division at Worlds and a nickname around the competition: the Cube Experts.
While the team performed well at the competition, DeVinney’s favorite moment of the trip had nothing to do with robots.
“They have this block party and seeing the kids have so much fun with kids from a completely different team from across the country was a moment like, it’s more than just robots,” she said. “It’s the connections that these kids get to build with these other people that they’ve never met before that are just like them.”
DeVinney hopes that the success of the team invigorates the students and the South Knoxville community around robotics and STEM.
So-Kno Robo has been involved with nearby schools to mentor their LEGO Leagues, an international robotics group for elementary and middle school students. They also attend the schools’ STEM nights to show off their robots to create interest in robotics. The involvement and exposure at an early age will prepare them for robotics when they enter high school, DeVinney said.
She also believes more students at South-Doyle will be inspired by their peers and find an interest in robotics.
“We have a lot of diverse kids here, so this gives them the opportunity that they maybe never would’ve had to get them excited for STEM and engineering and wanting to keep going with it,” DeVinney said.
Watch videos of their FIRST Robotics Competition matches and more information on their season here.
Over 50 Pilot Company employees donated their time on Wednesday to improve district schools, with outdoor beautification projects for Pilot Give Back Day.
Four teams went to Amherst Elementary, Pond Gap Elementary, Ritta Elementary, and West Hills Elementary to work on specific projects that were chosen by the school’s administrators.
“We’re really excited to have this community support,” said Kristen Jackson, executive principal at West Hills Elementary. “I think it builds a culture of the school helping the community and the community helping the school.”
Jackson and her team decided to spruce up the front of their building with flower planter boxes and benches to create a welcoming environment for students and the community. Pilot volunteers also built picnic tables for teachers and families to utilize on warm weather days.
The team at Amherst Elementary revitalized the outdoor classroom space. They mulched, painted benches, and brought in a podium to create a safe, beautiful area that teachers will be excited to use.
“After getting connected with Assistant Principal Beth Spence and taking a tour of Amherst we saw the need and potential for the outdoor classroom,” said Brianna Bradford, Pilot Company’s project manager in construction and development. “Children and teachers spend a lot of time in school so having an outdoor classroom is beneficial.”
Ritta Elementary saw many changes around their school as the Pilot team enhanced the look of the land with rock gardens around multiple trees, the front marquee sign, and flag poles. They also prepped a space that will be the future home of a mural to brighten their facility.
Another team worked on garden projects around Pond Gap Elementary for their students and staff to enjoy.
Knox County Schools is grateful for the partnership with Pilot Company, and excited about opportunities to work together in the future.