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Calendars cause problems for Innovation Academy

August 29th, 2012 3:20 am by Rick Wagner

KINGSPORT — Parental issues with the school calendar are by far the top problem at Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee, according to Principal Sandy Watkins.

The school, jointly operated by Kingsport and Sullivan County, is a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) platform school serving 160 sixth- and seventh-graders. The school will expand eventually to grades 6-12.

Watkins told the school's governing board, meeting Tuesday afternoon at the school, that she has spent more time on the calendar issue than any other since the school opened Aug. 6 -- specifically the difference between the Kingsport and county school calendars.

She said communication is another parental concern, but the school's Web site is evolving, and a newsletter goes out every two weeks.

"Our greatest challenge thus far has been the calendar," Watkins said.

"'It's unfair.' It's all I've heard," Watkins added. "We're going to have to do something next year because it isn't working for us."

The obvious solution would be a unified school calendar between the two systems or, as Kingsport Board of Education President and governing board Chairman Randy Montgomery said, align them more closely.

After it became clear the board wasn't going to waver from the already-set calendar, Watkins asked the board to consider input from her and the school's teachers in the 2013-12 calendar for Innovation Academy. They had no input on the 2012-13 calendar.

Watkins said the problem is twofold.

One issue is some parents with other children in the city or county school systems whose calendars are different plan to pull their children for previously planned vacations.

Also, she said parents of students in the Sullivan East High School zone declined to have their children attend school on the Friday before the Bristol Motor Speedway race weekend, when county schools are out because of race traffic issues.

The second problem, Watkins said, is she fears her staff of eight teachers will burn out from periodically having to provide a day's worth of activities for Innovation Academy students who stay at the school the whole day when their home system is not in session, and thus no related arts are available.

"I don't think anyone understands the time it takes to do what we're doing," Watkins said of teachers in the afternoons putting together the STEM curriculum as the school year progresses. "Evidently no one thought about how much time it took to create a curriculum. I just feel you're asking way too much of my teachers."

Normally, students leave about 12:20 p.m. to go back to their home school -- Robinson and Sevier Middle schools for city students and North Middle for county students, who later go back to their home school for extracurricular activities after school.

The first week, county students spent all day at Innovation Academy because their base schools weren't in session. And during the upcoming city fall break, city students are to spend all day at Innovation Academy.

The two spring breaks coincide, although the two system calendars have more than 20 days difference between them. The Innovation Academy calendar has more school days than either Kingsport or Sullivan County.

Montgomery and Kingsport Superintendent Lyle Ailshie said the school's students need the extra time to absorb more STEM learning, per the original extended calendar design. Still, Watkins suggested allowing slight tweaks in the calendar. She said she already told parents in the East zone she understood their decision not to get in race traffic to take and pick up their children at Blountville Middle School.

In other action Tuesday, the board chose Montgomery as chairman and county BOE member Jack Bales as vice chairman. The seven-member board beforehand accepted the appointment of Montgomery to replace Cheryl Harvey on the board and Bales to replace Ron Smith, who lost a re-election bid to the county BOE earlier this month. Bales and Montgomery are to figure out a system of rotating the chairmanship between the two school boards.

They join city BOE member Betsy Cooper, county BOE member Dan Wells, County Commissioner and businessman Eddie Williams, city Alderman Tom Segelhorst, and East Tennessee State University education professor Jack Rhoton, who oversees the ETSU innovation hub.

Ailshie and Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie bowed out as voting board members, making for seven voting members.

The board also voted to support the formation of a PTA at the school, which Watkins said parents want to do.

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