Over 600 eager students took a trip to the Knoxville Expo Center on Thursday for the 23rd KCS Food Show, where food vendors from across the country showcase their new offerings to students.
There were more than 250 samples from 54 manufacturers, including everything from a pancake bowl to ravioli, for students to taste. The theme for this year’s Food Show was Try-day Thursday, encouraging students to explore new food.
“They really enjoy it,” said Paul Parson, a KCS nutrition school area supervisor. “Some of them were trying things they’ve never had before. It’s a very positive experience, and we want them to have a voice.”
Students voted for items they like, and nutrition supervisors will tally up the votes. The menu items with the highest votes are then taken under consideration to be added to next year’s menu for all schools in the district.
“We want kids to enjoy their food, and it’s nice when they see something on the menu that they had a voice in, that they matter,” Parson said. He added that all food at the show met the federal nutrition requirements.
Rani Patel from Farragut High School attended the show with her health and wellness class.
“I genuinely do really like it. It’s a good experience,” Patel said. “We’ve learned a lot about how school cafeterias should benefit children, so this is a good way for us to promote that, to help other kids.”
Theotis Robinson, Jr. lives downtown with his wife of 30 years. He is retired now, but he often accepts invitations to speak at UT or attend dedications and ceremonies, like the one a few years back to rename a dormitory after him.
Robinson’s name is forever emblazoned into Knoxville’s history, much like on that dorm building. At the age of 18, he and two others became the first Black students to enroll at the University of Tennessee.
The pioneer has lived in Knoxville his entire life. His childhood home used to stand where the Civic Auditorium is located. He attended McMillan Primary, Green Elementary, Vine Junior High, and Austin High School.
“My fifth-grade teacher had the greatest impact of any teacher I ever had. Mrs. Drake was her name,” Robinson said.
Drake introduced her students to United States history and the Constitution, “and how far Americans were away from interpreting the Constitution based upon what it said. That was before the phrase ‘Black Pride’ ever came forth, but she taught that.”
The following year, when Robinson was finishing his 6th-grade year, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, although the Knoxville school board would need to create a desegregation plan in order to make that a reality.
Implementation of a plan had still not happened by the time Robinson was a senior at Austin High, so he joined 16 other students to seek admission to the white schools in the area.
“The group that I was in, we went over to what was then East High School, which is now Austin-East. The principal met us at the door, telling us that we couldn’t come in,” he said. “After we were turned away, that’s when the lawsuit was filed.”
Josephine Goss v Knoxville Board of Education ensured that desegregation was in the future for Knoxville students, but it would still be several years until a formal plan was put in place.
A few months before his high school graduation, four students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat at a whites-only lunch counter to protest private-sector segregation. This peaceful protest spread throughout the country and reached Knoxville lunch counters by June.
“I was one of the ones going down there practically every day, sitting in at Woolworth’s, and Kress, Walgreen’s, you name the place, and I was one of the people down there,” Robinson said. “Took my dad one day. He witnessed what it was like and experienced the atmosphere. He saw all the harassment that was going on.”
Robinson recalled that a white UT student purchased a grape soda and poured it over the head of a protestor. When Robinson and his father returned home, his dad said, “Son, I support everything you’re doing. I’m 100 percent behind you, but I can’t do this. If somebody does that to me and calls me the magic word, that nonviolence stuff is going out the window,” he recalled with a laugh.
After a month of the sit-ins, an ad was published in the Sunday edition of the News Sentinel with a list of the inequities still present in Knoxville. One of those issues stated that Black students were not accepted into the University of Tennessee undergraduate program.
“I was getting ready to go to school, go to college, and I thought, ‘This is something I can do, that I can do something about,’” he said. “That very night, that same Sunday night, I wrote down a letter of application to UT.”
He never mentioned his race nor his high school on the application, yet he still received a letter of rejection, citing their policy to not accept “Negroes.”
Robinson spoke with the dean of undergraduate admissions, who set up a meeting with UT president Andy Holt.
“He wanted to know why I wanted to come to UT. I told him I was born in Chattanooga, lived in Tennessee all my life, paid taxes here in Tennessee,” Robinson said. “Every time I buy a six-pack of Coca-Cola, I’m paying taxes on it. Some of that tax money goes to UT, so I have a right to come here to major in political science, and I can’t do it at Knoxville College.”
Holt said the decision was up to the Board of Trustees, and he would bring the issue to them, to which Robinson replied, “you and the Board needs to understand if UT doesn’t change its policy, I plan to sue the University.”
The State Attorney General determined he could not win the lawsuit if Robinson filed against them, so the Board reviewed his application. They deemed he was eligible for admittance.
He began classes on Jan. 4, 1961. Other universities in the south began desegregating their campuses, and several students were met with violence.
Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter enrolled at the University of Georgia at the same time as Robinson and were faced with mobs outside of their dormitories. James Meredith started school at the University of Mississippi in October of the following year, which launched a deadly riot where two people were killed.
“I had none of this kind of treatment. This was a Sunday afternoon picnic in the park in the spring,” Robinson said. “I don’t know that I could have withstood what he had to endure.”
Since his time at UT, Robinson was elected to the city council where he served from 1970-1977. He served as the Vice President of economic development for the 1982 World’s Fair and returned to UT, first as a lecturer of political science and eventually retiring as the UT System Vice President of diversity and inclusion. He was granted an honorary doctorate for a lifetime of work to advance social justice, received the Whitney M. Young Lifetime Achievement Award from the Knox Urban League, was named by Metro Pulse as one of the most 100 influential Knoxvillians of the 20th century, and had a dormitory on UT’s campus renamed after him.
Those fortunate enough to meet him or listen to one of his speeches will likely hear him mention those that came before him: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, or Sojourner Truth.
“I followed in the footsteps of those people. I stood on their shoulders to seek to carry on the work of advancing human rights and civil rights,” Robinson said. “You are now preparing yourself for a life and careers. Be sure as you build your career and as you travel life’s paths, to leave behind footsteps. Build the kinds of shoulders that others following you can stand on to continue. Live a principled life so that you can leave behind those footprints for others to follow.”
The first cohort of The 865 Academies revealed their new career-themed Academies at a celebration hosted by Central High School on Thursday.
The 865 Academies initiative launched in the fall of 2022, and is designed to transform the high school experience in Knox County. The goal is for every KCS graduate to be prepared for enrolling in postsecondary studies; enlisting in service to their country; or finding employment in a high-wage, high-skill, and in-demand profession, with an entrepreneurial mindset.
By establishing career-themed academies, the initiative will create small learning communities within larger schools, allowing students to participate in career exploration activities and take a deep dive into areas of interest while also building strong connections with teachers and other students.
“We’ve got to prepare students, and school systems are uniquely positioned to do that,” said Superintendent Dr. Jon Rysewyk. “Our job is to have students prepared for when they graduate.”
The celebration was attended by community leaders and industry partners, including Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who said 865Ready graduates will ultimately benefit Knox County and East Tennessee.
“This is just wonderful to see a really intentional, strategic effort to in some ways customize the student experience,” Jacobs said. “They get the tools and the skills that they need to excel in areas that they’re either naturally drawn to or things that they love.”
Gordon Heins, the president and chairman of the A.G. Heins Company, said industry partnerships positively impact both organizations and students. By working together, KCS students are provided valuable opportunities for work-based learning and career exploration.
“As an employer, we want students to come to us looking for good-paying jobs, and that they’re prepared, and they have the tools,” he said.
Central High School is in the first cohort of The 865 Academies, and Principal Dr. Andrew Brown said student performance in Algebra I has improved, while discipline referrals are down.”
Brown credited Freshman Seminar, a new class that focuses on helping 9th-graders identify interests, aptitudes and professional skills, adding that “we are already beginning to see great results out of that work.
CHS senior Justus Hayes was involved in the early stages of launching the Academies initiative, and is also an entrepreneur. He started his own business, Blended Clothing, and during the ceremony presented shirts to several local leaders.
“Entrepreneurship is a very important thing to me. I love creating, and bringing new apparel and things to our generation,” Hayes said. “It has been my honor to help build and show my support for something that will impact our current and future generations.”
Student Ambassadors from each school presented their new Academies alongside their principals. Below are the Academies for the first cohort.
Carter High School and South-Doyle High School will be joining The 865 Academies as the second cohort in the fall.
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.”
A Knox County educator was in the spotlight after earning a national award, a $50,000 prize and an appearance on a daytime talk show!
On Tuesday, Melody Hawkins, an assistant administrator at Austin-East Magnet High, was recognized as National University’s Teacher of the Year. Hawkins previously served as a teacher at Vine Middle Magnet School, before joining A-E as an administrator last fall.
The announcement was made on “The Drew Barrymore Show”, and Hawkins was able to celebrate with her students after watching the episode in a classroom at A-E.
In the televised interview, Hawkins talked about her passion for teaching, the lasting impact of a former student, and the influence of educators in her own life – including her mother, who was also a teacher.
During the celebration at Austin-East, Hawkins showed students the replica $50,000 check that she received, and highlighted a scholarship to pursue a doctoral degree which is part of the award.
Lazaire Nance, a 9th-grader at A-E who was previously one of Hawkins’ science students at Vine Middle, said she wants to pursue a career as a doctor and a biochemist, adding that Hawkins has played a big role in her life: “She really inspired me to be who I want to be and let me know I could do it.”
Students also talked about Hawkins’ encouragement to pursue academic achievements in fields like science, where women of color are often underrepresented.
Hawkins said Tuesday that she was happy to see students have been listening to that message: “I encourage them to be themselves unapologetically, without question, without shame,” she said. “Be who you are, show up as who you are and everything else will take care of itself.”
A project that aims to save energy and improve lighting for Knox County students is making a visible difference at high schools across the county.
Earlier this year, the Board of Education approved a proposal from Trane Technologies to convert school lighting to LED technology, using new and retrofitted fixtures. The $26.1 million project is fully self-funded through guaranteed utility and operational savings, and will replace existing lighting in classrooms, parking lots and other settings.
Perhaps the highest-profile change has come at athletic fields. Replacement lighting has now been installed at most of the district’s stadiums, and has not only resulted in improved visibility, but also provides additional features to promote school spirit.
Unlike traditional stadium lights which need to warm up, the LED system can be turned on and off immediately. The new system can also provide light-show style displays with multiple colors and patterns.
Clark Duncan, football coach and athletic director at South-Doyle High School, said the quality of the Trane system was immediately noticeable, especially compared to the previous system.
“There were times on our field that there were dark spots, at times it wasn’t lit well enough,” Duncan said. “We were told that the new system was going to be like daytime, and oh my gosh, it’s just like daytime. It’s like noon at nine o’clock. It’s amazing how well you can see.”
At South-Doyle, School Security Officer Michael Cain has worked with student leaders who asked to implement a light show after the third quarter of football games. With approval from administrators, students pick a song that is played as part of the display.
Cain said student attendance has risen this year, adding that “To me it makes Friday nights even better.”
Ultimately, of course, the lighting project is all about reducing energy consumption and providing savings for schools across the district — even on the football field.
Zane Foraker, energy manager for Knox County Schools, said that instead of turning stadium lights on several hours before a game, coaches can now wait until they’re needed. After games, they can be automated to turn off at midnight. Most important, he said, is the cost savings from lower energy use.
“This is paid for with the energy savings. So over the term of the contract Knox County is not spending any money on these, they pay for themselves.”