Digital Upgrades Improve Accessibility For ELL Families

Digital Upgrades Improve Accessibility For ELL Families

Several new features on the KCS website and YouTube channel will make it easier for students and families to receive updates, find information and learn about their school.

Earlier this month, “Translate” buttons in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Swahili were added in the upper left-hand corner of, as well as on school websites. This enhancement makes it easier for users to access those languages, while a drop-down menu with dozens of additional languages continues to be provided.

In addition, KCS recently launched, a condensed version of the district website that highlights areas of high importance, including:

  • Enrollment;
  • The Family Portal;
  • District governance; and
  • School zone maps.

The district has also launched a series of videos on YouTube that highlight Spanish-speaking students and families; profile Spanish-speaking employees; and provide updates about important topics.

“It is very important that all families have access to important information about their child’s education, even if they are still learning English,” said Superintendent Bob Thomas. “This enhancement of our website will make it easier for families to stay informed, and I am grateful that we are able to implement these changes.”

More than 5,400 students within KCS are from families where these languages are spoken at home:

  • Spanish – 4,740
  • Arabic – 326
  • Chinese – 204
  • Swahili – 186
KCS Community Gives, Receives During Holidays

KCS Community Gives, Receives During Holidays

Across Knox County, KCS employees and students take time during the holidays to assist those in need. Skikila Smith, an ELA teacher at Austin-East Magnet High, organizes an annual holiday shoe drive for Roadrunner students.

As district schools prepared for Winter Break this month, final exams and end-of-semester activities weren’t the only items on the calendar. Across Knox County, students, families and school employees took time to give — and receive — gestures of kindness in the holiday spirit.

At Austin-East Magnet High School, ELA teacher Skikila Smith — known to her students as “Ms. Sky” — has been coordinating an informal holiday shoe drive since joining the Roadrunner family as an intern in 2017.

Smith said that when she lost her children’s father at the age of 21, her family benefited from local Angel Tree programs that provided holiday gifts, and she is also grateful for all the people who supported her when she got her master’s degree at the age of 42.

The shoe drive is a way to give back and help students in need put their best foot forward, and Smith said A-E teachers help to identify potential recipients.

“It would not be possible without a teacher that is looking to cultivate the entire human, and uplift the entire family,” she added.

Organizers of the Farragut Giving Tree program provided gift bags to families in need.

In some cases, the effort to assist families in need has been adjusted because of COVID-19. LeighAnna Colgrove, a Farragut High School parent, coordinates a Giving Tree program that supports families at four schools in that community.

Colgrove said that in the past, the program would provide a clothing gift bag to families and give them a chance to pick a donated toy. Because of COVID, organizers last year adjusted the campaign to a drive-up event in which gift cards were provided.

Colgrove said the feedback they received was positive, not only because of the additional privacy of the drive-up format but also because it allowed families to shop for their own Christmas gifts.

This year, she said, organizers did shop for a handful of families who had transportation or medical challenges, but gift cards were mostly provided. In addition, because donations exceeded expectations, they were also able to provide coats and shoes, while private donors provided school hoodies, a Walmart gift card and a food box.

“We were just overwhelmed by the generosity this year,” Colgrove said.

KCS students have also benefited from the generosity of outside organizations, including East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.

Shelli Eberle, principal of Fort Sanders Educational Development Center, said Children’s does an annual Christmas tree drive at the school in honor of a former patient who passed away.

The drive has grown so significantly that this year, ETCH was able to provide 125 mini-trees – one for each student.

Eberle said students have enjoyed the chance to take home an individual tree, and that the drive has been a bright spot of the holiday season.

“Seeing the joy on each child’s face as they picked out their very own tree to take home was an important reminder to look for the magic of the holiday season,” she said.  “We are so grateful to have ETCH as such an incredible Partner in Education.”

East Tennessee Children’s Hospital provided 125 mini-trees for children at Fort Sanders Educational Development Center.
Vision Team Makes A Difference For Students

Vision Team Makes A Difference For Students

Vision Team Makes 
A Difference For Students
Janet French creates academic materials in braille for students who are blind or vision-impaired. (Photo credit / Mandi Taylor)

On a recent morning at Sterchi Elementary, Janet French took a one-page sheet of writing exercises and scanned them into her computer.

After making sure the worksheet was correct, she entered a command and a staccato noise like a miniature jackhammer rang out from a nearby printer, as embossed pages unfurled from the device.

Several minutes later, French retrieved a six-page sheet of double-spaced braille pages from the printer, ready for use by a student at the school.

While the KCS Vision Department is a relatively small portion of the district’s overall workforce, braillists like French — along with KCS teachers of the visually impaired and orientation & mobility specialists — have a huge impact for approximately 150 blind or low-vision students in Knox County.

Mandi Taylor, a teacher of the visually impaired, said those students can use a wide range of tools that vary in degrees of technological complexity.

At one end of the spectrum are simple magnifying tools, such as a half-sphere “dome magnifier” for books or a telescope-like monocular to assist with viewing material at a distance, such as writing on a classroom whiteboard.

Digital tools are also available, such as closed-circuit TV devices that can display written material or the image of a teacher on a digital screen.

Braille — a tactile writing system of raised dots on paper —  is also an important resource. Sterchi is one of four district schools with dedicated braille stations, along with Farragut Middle, Carter High and South-Doyle High.

The braille system is utilized in a variety of ways. Students can use braille flashcards to practice math facts or other memorization tasks, and a tactical graphics kit can help teachers create materials by hand.

More advanced tools include the “Jaws” screen reader, which can read on-screen text out loud, and even a BrailleNote Touch tablet, in which braille dots pop up along a narrow strip at the bottom of the tablet as users scroll through material.

Learning to read braille can take two years, and Taylor said the tools used by students may change over time, especially as they get older and take on different challenges.

Lauren Switzer, a teacher and orientation / mobility specialist, said the department works to identify the right tool for each student’s particular needs and goals, adding that the overall objective is for students “to have enormous tool kits to pull from in the right situation.”

The Vision Department includes two braillists, nine itinerant specialists / teachers and a team of vision technicians who travel to schools and conduct vision assessments.

In many cases, the employees who work in the department were drawn to their jobs after an experience of working with a vision-impaired person. Taylor said she was an elementary teacher who worked with two children who had vision impairments, including one who was learning braille — “It blew my mind, and I just became interested in the process,” she said.

Switzer was pursuing a career in physical therapy, but reconsidered after working with a woman who was blind. “I enjoyed how my brain had to work a little bit differently, I had to be more creative,” she said.

The work can also create a close bond with students. French, who creates braille materials, has even been invited to the weddings of former students.

Summer Tucker, special education supervisor for KCS, said the work is rewarding in part because its impact goes beyond the classroom.

“You are giving students skills that are going to help them in life,” she said.