Brianna Andrews was shooting for clouds when she decided to pursue aerospace engineering as a young girl.
A senior at L&N STEM Academy,her high school experience has prepared her to take the next step. Andrews is ready for college, but not everyone is.
That’s why the 865 Academies initiative was implemented at high schools throughout Knox County to help prepare students for enrolling in a college or trade school, enlisting in service to their country, or finding employment in a high-skill, high-wage career.
L&N offers its students programs in the School of Advanced Inquiry; School of Computational Science and Cybersecurity; School of Design Thinking; and School of Physics, Mechanics, and Engineering.
With advanced academic pathways like these now available, Andrews admitted she was a little envious of not being able to take part. Each high school has launched the academy initiative with a Freshman Academy to ease the transition from middle to high school. Those students will be the first to experience the academies and pathways model, but to get involved where she can, Andrews has participated in the Gryphon Guides, the student ambassador program for L&N.
“Being a Gryphon Guide allowed me to find my voice and become a leader because I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t imagine myself doing,” Andrews said. “It’s been a great experience to get to be a part of something so special.”
Ambassadors serve as school representatives, giving tours to visitors and being the spokespeople for media spots. More than just repping their school, these programs also teach the soft skills necessary to nail job interviews, successfully lead teams, and converse with notable community members.
She said it’s easy to talk about L&N. It’s where her brother went, and it’s a place that she is proud to attend.
L&N STEM Academy was recently recognized as a Gold AP Honor Roll school, along with several other KCS schools.
“I really love talking about the things that we have going on here, and it’s such an impactful experience to be able to meet people in the community and talk about the things that I love about STEM – to help other students see the beauty in the school from the architecture to the people and the different things that we offer,” she said.
(Side note: Andrews’ favorite place on campus is the Idea Factory, a collaborative workspace for the newest ideas in STEM.)
Though she isn’t a part of the Academies, Andrews has taken part in a few unique internships – an important component of the 865 Academies model in addition to career talks, job shadowing, and work-based learning.
Andrews’ internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory will grow her experience and increase her confidence as she prepares for an elite aerospace engineering program at a school like the University of Tennessee, Purdue University, or New York University.
With the help of her teachers, the support from her parents, and rigorous coursework from her school, Andrews is certain she will be prepared for all that comes her way.
Interested in learning more about how your organization can be an 865 Academies partner? Visit knoxschools.org/academies for details.
Nearly every day after the final bell, students gather in the Central High library for an hour of tutoring.
Central’s program, like so many others across Knox County Schools, offers free tutoring in math, science, and English four days a week.
It’s in these sessions that math teacher and program coordinator Andrew Turner sees an impact on students and teachers.
“We talk about resilience and finishing strong a lot at Central,” Turner said. “I really feel like the tutoring program assists the idea that it’s never over. You may have started poorly or gotten behind here or there, but we’re going to help you and support you in catching up.”
Over the years, Turner has tracked student participation in the program and found that it has a deep influence on graduation rates. He said one year 20% of graduates who were on the line of eligibility were able to finish high school because of the extra support they received in tutoring.
The teachers leading the afterschool sessions also learn and benefit in their own way.
In a room full of students all needing assistance in different subjects, teachers oftentimes step in to help with courses they don’t teach. An algebra teacher might help with biology, or a literature teacher could assist with world geography. “It’s fun to watch teachers push themselves professionally and stay fresh on content,” Turner said. He added, “The hearts of these teachers are so big. Getting paid is nice, but they would do it for free. They really do care about the kids.”
When the Whole Child Support Team concept was introduced last year at Holston Middle, the counselors were ready to welcome the process with open arms.
“Whole-child support means you’re looking at every piece of the child, so when a kid is struggling in math, for example, we dig deep into what else is going on in their life that might lead them to struggle in math,” said sixth-grade counselor Hannah Roberts.
In just over a year, Holston’s students have already seen significant improvements in behavior and academics.
Anjelica Nichols, the seventh-grade counselor, said at one point in time 35 seventh-graders were failing a class. In just two weeks of whole-child meetings and interventions, 70% of those students no longer had Fs.
“If we hadn’t had everyone at the table with those different ideas or reached out to the students’ families, I don’t think we would have seen that much of a turnaround,” she said. “Everyone’s insight is needed to help the child be successful.”
When a teacher notices a change in a student, they are encouraged to refer them to the Whole-Child Support Team. Counselors then conduct a root-cause analysis and determine what additional supports are needed.
Eighth-grade counselor Taylor Branson also emphasized the importance of echoing support at home.“Be as involved as possible, and do a ten-minute check-in with your kiddo every day,” she said. “If you have any questions about your student and want our perspective, reach out! We want to work together to build support around your kids.”
A famous KCS grad made a significant impact at a local school on Friday by presenting music teacher Tom Walsh with the first Music Teacher of Note award and donating $20,000 to the school’s music program to buy new instruments!
The Morgan Wallen Foundation’s Program Director, Lesli Wallen, taught at Adrian-Burnett Elementary for most of her career, where she met and worked with Walsh.
He is a longtime music teacher, and he is known to rummage around yard sales on weekends to find inexpensive musical instruments for his classroom.
“In all my years of teaching, I have never come in contact with a music teacher like he is,” Wallen said. “I have been so impacted by his love of teaching and his love for the kids.”
She waited weeks to tell her former coworker he’s “not going to have to go to any more yard sales.”
The award and donation were kept under wraps until Friday, when Morgan Wallen spoke to the group in a video congratulating Walsh and thanking him for his years of service to his students.
“I know he gives 100%, is always getting there early in the morning to make sure y’all are getting to practice, and does anything he can to make y’all better,” said Wallen.
Walsh was short in his speech, taking in the sounds of the excited students and his moment on stage: “Honestly, I had no idea about this, and I’m already thinking about what I’m doing to do with this,” he said.
Before the morning bell on Wednesday, a group of Green Magnet students gathered in the library to see what a new group was about.
A towering man introduced himself as Mr. C and welcomed everyone to the first meeting of Real Talk the school had held in years.
Real Talk, a mentoring program for elementary and middle school students, started over a dozen years ago at Vine Middle with only four students. The group now serves over 375 students weekly in eight schools across the district, and they hope to add five more before the end of the year.
“I started the program because I didn’t want kids to go through some of the things that I was going through at that time in life,” said Real Talk Founder and KCS Talent Acquisition Specialist Clarence Swearengen.
Years ago, he walked a path full of “dark days,” and one day almost lost his life. He then vowed to make a change – not only for him, but also for the young people in his community.
Steering students away from a criminal lifestyle, Real Talk focuses on positive role models and eye-opening experiences.
“Some speakers are pastors that were once gang members who have transformed their lives into productive citizens doing really, really good stuff for our community,” he said. “They decide to pour into our youth.”
The program curriculum aligns with the district’s Four Priorities, especially in career empowerment and preparation. Real Talk hits the road to go on college tours, explore military bases, and visit job sites to expose the group to as many positive opportunities as possible.
Swearengen said he witnesses the power of the program when former students return to Real Talk as guest speakers.
“When you see that transformation, you know your program is successful,” he said.
United Way sponsors the program, but groups interested in providing additional support can visit realtalkmp.org.
Individual paths that included hours of intense studying and years of classroom preparation, along with exceptional PSAT scores, are what earned 34 students in Knox County Schools recognition as semifinalists for the National Merit Scholarship.
“I am so thankful and proud to be a semifinalist,” said West High School’s Cooper Etheridge. “This is going to provide a huge opportunity for my future.”
An impressive feat for the high school seniors, as less than 1% of the nation’s graduating seniors will qualify. The accolade is based on PSAT test scores, so missing or not finishing the test isn’t an option for anyone hoping to earn the recognition – something that was very nearly a reality for one of the finalists.
“I actually got kicked out of the PSAT,” said Bearden High School’s Maya Hira. “I started the wrong section and told on myself, so they canceled my score!”
True determination meant she was eventually able to qualify with her SAT score – which she took while her family was on vacation. “It was so exciting to find out I made the list!”
Others were able to find a balance between academics and the social aspect of the high school experience.
“I fell into a routine to look over those tests and study resources on Fridays before going to football games,” said Farragut High School’s Michelle Lin. “I went to every single one! Then the next day I would do a practice test.” She credits her success to “really good consistency and mentorship throughout the years.”
Despite being vastly different in their interests, study habits, and plans, they all hope to attend some of the most prestigious colleges in the country.
Their list of dream schools included Princeton, Purdue, MIT, Oklahoma, Stanford, and Caltech–and they hope this award will help them get one step closer to a Freshman Orientation on these college campuses.
Those campuses would be lucky to have them; beyond their academic focus and gifts, they contribute to their schools through school clubs, sports, and volunteer opportunities.
“I really like tutoring people. I like helping people. Since I’m good at math, I like to use that skill to help other people,” said L&N STEM Academy’s Jared Mueller. “I think one of the most important qualities for people to have is compassion.”
These students are really something!
The full list of KCS National Merit Semifinalists is below.
Bearden High School Maya Hira Alanie Keith Avigail Laing Nicholas McIntyre Harper Smith
Farragut High School Karrie An Iris Chen Elaina Conger Grace Feng Audrey Fey Madeline Gao Caleb Han Jesse Hao George Hu Danial Khan Michelle Lin Elliot Mandl Vivaan Singhvi Reuben Soans Channing Tan Thomas Williamson Nicholas Yan Iris Ye
Hardin Valley Academy David Hart
L&N STEM Academy Jared Mueller Hazel White Cooper Wirth
West High School Bryden Asti Lucia Benedetto McNulty Charles Burke Hunter Dance Cooper Etheridge Duncan Gilpatric Cooper Ward