In other rooms and areas, many with 20-foot ceilings and movable furnishings, large white boards have lesson summaries as students gather round in semicircles.
It is all part of what the future of high school education might be, but it is here now in downtown Kingsport at D-B EXCEL.
“We can just sit here and do our work,” junior Graham Luethke said, explaining that he needs to fidget a bit as he works.
“The chairs are pretty comfortable,” senior Wells Lemons said.
Both were among D-B EXCEL students who led tours of the building Wednesday when Kingsport City Schools held a ribbon cutting and open house for its newest school operation. The new D-B EXCEL campus in the Press Building opened for the spring semester last month, but only recently got all furnishings and equipment installed. The 16,000-square-foot school is on the second floor, adjacent to the KCS Administrative Support Center.
Superintendent Lyle Ailshie said the school, which features movable walls, flexible workspaces and an open concept, is not an expanded behavioral program, a misconception from its days housed at the alternative school at Cora Cox Academy. He said it also is not an easier path to a diploma and maintains KCS standards. Instead, he said, D-B EXCEL provides additional pathways to college and career with flexible and personalized learning.
“We don’t always see our teachers every day, but if we need to see them, we can,” Graham said, adding that he’s gone through a rough time recently.
“I’ve never felt more loved or welcoming than here.”
He said the teachers adapt to students’ learning styles, like a doctor. “They diagnose how we need to do things,” he said.
Graham plans to go to Emory & Henry College and major in sports medicine, then get a job as an orthotics and prosthetics practitioner, while Wells plans to go to Northeast State Community College for two years and then transfer to the University of Tennessee or another four-year school to get a mechanical or civil engineering degree.
D-B EXCEL uses blended learning, a combination of in-person and online instruction. Ailshie said it is not for all students since it requires more self-motivation than the main campus. Board of Education President Eric Hyche said the new location, in planning for four years, provides variety and flexibility. He said the school looks more like the California headquarters of Groupon, his employer, than a school.
Hyche also said “innovation involves risk” and the “cutting edge cuts,” but he predicted the end result will be worth it. The school is on the site of the former Kingsport Press, founded in 1922 and shuttered by a later owner in 2006, as recounted by City Manager Jeff Fleming.
Hyche said all redevelopment at the site is “a nod to the past with a focus to the future.”
Cain Rash West Architects and Goins Rash Cain Construction worked on the project, with Bob Feathers of Workspace Interiors providing furnishing and fixtures. The school system has a lease-to-own agreement on the property and may exercise an early lease buyout.
“This is KCS’ first program of choice. We are excited about being able to offer that opportunity,” Ailshie said.
However, like the main D-B campus with more than 2,200 students, he said the “new pathway to academic, social and career success” likely will be replicated in the future at the middle school level, focusing on a more flexible learning environment.
Principal Shanna Hensley said D-B EXCEL has 210 student enrolled for the semester, not counting 70 that graduated in December.
“Dobyns-Bennett is excellent. We’re just a program of choice for students at Dobyns-Bennett,” Hensley said.
Mayor John Clark said the school embodies the Kingsport spirit: working on a common cause for the good of all and to aim high, doing whatever is done to the best possible.
“This is not the end. This is just one point along the journey,” Ailshie said. “We cannot let being good keep us from being great.”