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.”
On a recent morning at Gresham Middle School, students in Nicole Resmondo’s class were getting ready for “Trap Tuesday.”
Before leading them out a back door, the 6th-grade science teacher highlighted a roster of jobs and asked for volunteers, including paper collector, paper switcher, water carrier and cup refiller.
Once the volunteers were identified, students walked out of the building and across the school’s campus to a hillside, where a series of plastic water cups was scattered in different locations.
At one of those locations, Resmondo and a small group of students examined the cup and the teacher pointed out dozens of mosquito larvae. The tiny, thread-like creatures were squirming in the water, prompting cries of “Wow!” and “Oh my gosh!” from students, who used a clipboard to take notes.
The activity is part of an effort to trap mosquitos and study their populations, and it’s giving Gresham students a hands-on look at how scientific research works. But they’re not the only ones who are benefiting from the effort.
The research — part of a USDA-funded project awarded to the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture that is known as the MEGA:BITESS Academy — is providing valuable data that will help scientists understand La Crosse encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease.
Becky Trout Fryxell, an associate professor at UTIA, is the principal investigator for the project, which involves schools across East Tennessee, including several within KCS. Trout Fryxell said that because La Crosse encephalitis affects a relatively small number of people, it’s hard to obtain funding to study its transmission.
But she said a community-driven surveillance program can go a long way toward understanding the disease and the mosquitoes that carry it. “Right now we’re sitting at temperatures in the ‘90s and we haven’t had any rain, so these cups are going to be the sole places where a lot of these mosquitoes are laying their eggs,” she added.
In order to gather data, students prepare water for the traps by mixing it with bovine liver powder and storing it in a closed bucket for seven days. They pour the water into the mosquito traps, plastic cups that are geo-coded by location and that include seed-germination paper which captures mosquito eggs.
Every week the students collect data about how many eggs, larvae and pupae are collected in each trap, paying special attention to factors such as sunlight or shade and how they affect the results.
After recording the data, the old water and any larvae are poured out while the egg papers are dried out so the eggs go dormant. The eggs are then sent to UT, which tries to hatch them in a secure environment and tests the resulting mosquitos for La Crosse.
Resmondo was part of the state committee that writes curriculum standards for science in Tennessee, and currently serves on the Knox County science curriculum team. She’s a strong believer in allowing students to do actual science and said that by asking questions, looking at data and participating in hands-on experiments, students gain a fuller understanding.
“If you just read about it, it kind of comes in one ear and out the other,” Resmondo said. “When you do the science, it’s something that you won’t forget.”
In fact, inspiring students to pursue science careers is central to the initiative. Trout Fryxell said the main goal of the project is to promote workforce development, with the idea that students will get a taste of disciplines such as agriculture, entomology, geography, and science communication, and pursue those careers when they finish school.
Last summer, participating teachers attended a summer workshop that focused on the experimental side of the project, and early next year they’ll attend workshops that highlight geospatial analysis and communication skills.
Participating teachers get a small reimbursement, and Trout Fryxell said the project is seeking more teachers for next year’s cohort.
After gathering their data, Gresham students returned to class and discussed the things they’ve learned, including the environmental factors that attract mosquitoes, the role of vectors in spreading disease and the physical markings of the Asian Tiger mosquito.
In an interview, 6th-grader Hetvi Patel said she loves doing experiments and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Patel said she’s learned a lot from Resmondo, including the value of making mistakes and learning from them.
“I love doing experiments and actually seeing (science) instead of just learning it,” she said.
The senior at Karns High School has served as state president of the Tennessee Technology Student Association; Class President at Karns for multiple years; and drum major for the KHS marching band, not to mention recognition as an all-state performer on the bass clarinet and contra bass.
But when his good friend, Hannah Selph, was appointed to the KCS Board of Education for the 2018-19 school year, Kelley was intrigued by the opportunity.
“When she got the student representative role and I got an even closer look to the influence they have, I was like, ‘This is extraordinary, and if I passed up on this opportunity I’d be stupid,’” he recalled.
This year, Kelley is following in his friend’s footsteps and serving as the Board’s student representative, a position that allows him to provide input on a wide range of policy issues and to exercise a leadership style that emphasizes open-mindedness, a willingness to listen and tactful communication.
Jimbo Crawford, director of bands at Karns, said he got to know Kelley when Kelley was a middle-school student, saying that even as a 6th- and 7th-grader he left a positive impression.
The band director added that as drum major, it’s important to find a student who has credibility with the adult leaders, but “he’s also got to have a pretty good rapport with the students. You can’t pick a kid that everybody hates.”
The director said Kelley is nice, and smart in a way that’s not off-putting: “Students all know that he’s the guy that you could go to with a funny meme, and the same guy that you could go to to have help with your homework.”
As a child, Kelley had a heart condition that prevented him from playing sports, and he says that limitation is what led him to embrace other leadership opportunities. It also shaped his goals after high school, which are currently focused on becoming a pediatrician or possibly a cardiologist.
Kelley described his own cardiologist, Yvonne Bremer, as “the coolest woman in the world.” “She always makes my visits fun and it’s never anything miserable and she’s always super-excited to see me,” he said. “So (seeing) that kind of joy and the passion that she has for her career, I was like, ‘I want to do something like this.’”
In one sense, Kelley’s high school career has also focused on fostering joy for students at Karns. He has worked closely with ProjectU, an initiative that aims to promote unity and inclusion, including activities such as “Break Down Your Wall Day”, which encouraged students to sit with new friends and ensure that no one sat alone during lunch.
At another event, student leaders made a huge donut whose sprinkles were small pledge cards, signed by students who committed to showing kindness.
Those lessons about inclusion and unity may also come in handy on the school board, where emotions and passions can sometimes run high. Kelley said he’s realized the importance of being able to adapt as a leader, and to respond appropriately whether he agrees or disagrees with a particular viewpoint.
“Being able to relate with people and seeing their viewpoints and being forced to stay open-minded to all the different viewpoints of the county is kind of a cool thing to experience.”
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