MOUNT CARMEL — As Dr. Kim Cassidy wrapped up her 18-year career late last month as pre-K director in the Hawkins County School System, she didn't have to look far to find evidence that her time has been well spent.
Among those in attendance for Cassidy's going away party at Mount Carmel Elementary's pre-K classroom was newly graduated Church Hill Middle School eighth-grader Olivia Hill.
Hill was among the first pre-K students enrolled after the program expanded into Mount Carmel, and now she's a straight-A student.
"I learned a lot in this program when I was little," Hill told the Times-News. "I knew the ABCs backwards and we knew the presidents in order because we had a little song that we sang. It helped me in school. Having that early start helps a lot."
Cassidy's position was eliminated in the 2017-18 budget approved by the Board of Education last month. She has accepted an assistant professor position in the teaching program at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.
She told the Times-News that Hawkins County's pre-K program has been her life's work. It's hard to leave her family and friends, but she knows she's leaving the program in good shape and in good hands.
Cassidy wrote the grant that launched Hawkins County's early childhood program 18 years ago, which was originally the federally funded "Even Start." At that time, there was only one classroom with 20 students off campus in a vacant Rogersville Housing Authority townhouse.
When the Even Start program was phased out by the federal government, Hawkins County continued pre-K through the state.
Currently, the program has four on-campus classrooms, including one at Mount Carmel, one at Bulls Gap and two at Joseph Rogers.
The program currently serves 80 children ages 3-4, but the county has applied for additional state funding to expand the program to a fifth classroom at Carters Valley Elementary in 2017-18, which would increase enrollment to 100 if approved.
But Cassidy wont be here to see that potential expansion. With her departure the program will now be shepherded by elementary supervisor Richard Hutson.
There's some comfort for her, however, knowing that the savings created by the elimination of her position will benefit future pre-K children because it will allow the purchase of teaching technology for the program.
"I think everything that we've done here over the years has really helped me to develop into the educator I am today," Cassidy said. "I know that Hawkins County will go forward with me in Ohio, and I will be able to share that with future teachers. It's going to be exciting and a little scary, definitely challenging and I'm looking forward to it."
Cassidy said she believes the importance of pre-K education is backed up by the results.
"The major benefits of pre-K, they learn how to socialize properly," she said. "They learn the routine of school. They learn to be independent. They learn their foundational skills for their education. They don't have to leave here knowing everything. They don't have to leave here knowing all the letters and all the numbers. We give them the opportunity to learn how to learn, and that's what's important about pre-K.
Mount Carmel pre-K teacher Tonia Armstrong surprised Cassidy late last month with a going away party in her classroom.
"I've worked with Kim 13 years, and I've learned a lot from her," Armstrong said. "I've been teaching for almost 17 years, and I couldn't ask for a better director. Her heart is totally in the early childhood program, and I hate to see her go. There's going to be big shoes to fill. I just want her to know how much I appreciate her and love her, and my kids love her. She's going to be missed."