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Kingsport BOE members scrutinize STEM school plans, funding

Rick Wagner • May 3, 2013 at 11:25 AM

KINGSPORT — City school board members and officials are raising some concerns about funding, staffing and programs offered at Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee.

IA is a joint venture of the Sullivan County schools and Kingsport City Schools, which recently received a rave review from an education official who visited the campus at the county’s former Brookside Elementary campus in Bloomingdale last month.

Aside from offering a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to students, its best practices for STEM are being shared for Tennessee schools throughout the region.

The Board of Education Thursday night voted 5-0 to approve the IA Governing Board’s March 26 recommendation to extend the grades 6-7 school to 6-8 this fall and add related arts classes at the school, which means students won’t return to their home or base school in the early afternoon of the school day. BOE member Susan Lodal said she’s already getting questions from parents about what related arts would be offered, an issue the governing body did not address at its last meeting because the principal was absent due to illness.

Kingsport Superintendent Lyle Ailshie said the offerings in related arts probably would be a mixed art and music offering, Project Lead the Way and state-mandated physical education, although he said all would be geared toward STEM.

“It’s going to be very difficult to offer band there,” Ailshie said of middle school band, although he said an after-school option may be available.

BOE member Carrie Upshaw asked if when the school gets into the high school grades starting next year it would allow students to participate in high school band. BOE President Randy Montgomery said transportation and the relatively small number of students would make band difficult at the school.

Ailshie also told the board that the related arts offering would mean at least one additional teacher from the county and city for related arts, although Principal Sandy Watkins would like to have three related arts teachers, which would be 1.5 teaching positions from each system.

In addition, each system would add two teachers, a total of four, for the eighth grade.

Upshaw questioned having two or three full-time related arts teachers at IA when the city’s elementary school of comparable size, Adams Elementary, has only three part-time teachers. Ailshie said to meet planning time and requirements of the Battelle Institute-administered, Race to the Top-funded federal grant, the positions need to be full time at least for the 2013-14 years.

Lodal pointed out the two systems agreed to fund IA for the first two years as a condition to get $1 million in the STEM grant. East Tennessee State University got a $500,000 grant to be the hub for the project, which is supposed to be sustainable without more special state or federal funding starting in 2014-15, when students from other school systems in Northeast Tennessee are to be allowed.

Ailshie said that after the second year, the open lottery process to get slots also could be changed.

The school was opened in August of 2012 with slots for 160 students, 80 from each system and 40 from each system in each grade.

Although the school’s enrollment has since fallen to about 130, plans are to fill a new sixth grade class of 80 plus vacancies in other grades for a total of 240 students.

Lodal and Upshaw said with continuing tight budgets in both school systems they would look very closely at future budgets of IA. Each system is putting more than $400,000 into the school this school year, not counting the RTTT funding.

Wesley Hall, director of client engagement for the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, after a March 7 visit to IA said the school is a model STEM facility.

“I particularly enjoyed the visit to Innovation Academy and the student-led tours of their projects and classrooms,” Hall wrote in a March 12 email to IA officials.

“I was really impressed by the students and how excited they were about the projects, as well as how well-spoken they were. The unit on Speed and Aerodynamics was a great way to tie in Race Week and it was clear that the students were loving manipulating the model race tracks as a team,” Hall wrote. “Innovation Academy is an incredibly unique school that has a huge potential to be a model for STEM in our state. I hope each of our Network’s (STEM Innovation Network) principals and hub directors have the opportunity to visit Innovation Academy to see what true STEM integration looks like in action. While I hesitate to compare our hubs and schools to one another, I will say that I’ve yet to visit a school and hub with the quality and participation that I saw last week in the Tri-Cities.”

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