Director of Schools John English looks at items from a summer school program taught at Love Chapel Elementary School. Pictured with English are RTI instructor Renee Lingerfelt, and first grade teacher, Patience Erwin. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

In many ways, the 2016-17 school year in Unicoi County was no different than those of the past.

There was the usual homework and tests. Hours of study time were logged. The sights and sounds of recess and lunchtime filled playgrounds and cafeterias across the Unicoi County Schools system on a daily basis. Science fairs and school plays were held throughout the year. On the last day of classes, students picked up their final report cards before going off to enjoy their summer break.

There was, however, one large change in Unicoi County’s elementary schools this past year.

The 2016-17 school year was the school system’s first one under a more traditional kindergarten through 5th grade configuration. Under this arrangement, the county’s 4th and 5th grade students were not taught in a separate school but instead remained in the elementary schools where they had spent their kindergarten through 3rd grade years.

“At the end of the day, that move was truly, simply about what we felt like was best for kids,” said Unicoi County Director of Schools John English.

While most of the work needed to implement the reconfiguration was completed last summer, it was an unexpected event occurring several years ago that indirectly spurred the move.

A large sinkhole was discovered on the grounds of the old Love Chapel Elementary School in August 2012, just days after the start of the 2012-13 school year. This discovery would prompt the immediate relocation of the school’s students and staff to other schools within the system.

Love Chapel was relocated to available space at the county’s intermediate and middle schools for the remainder of the 2012-13 school year. In February 2013, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted to permanently close the 60-year-old Love Chapel Elementary School due to safety concerns, and the following month the board would approve the lease of 12 modular classroom units for a period of three years. These units were installed on a site adjacent to Unicoi County High School and began serving as Love Chapel Elementary School with the start of the 2013-14 school year.

English, who took over as the county’s director of schools in July 2015, said school officials were aware the lease on modulars would be up at the end of the 2015-16 school year. This left officials with a choice to make. They could purchase the modulars outright at a cost of around $1 million. They could also begin the costly process of bringing a new school to Unicoi County, an option discussed prior to English assuming the director’s position.

“I knew when I came into the job the situation that the lease of the modulars was going to be coming up, we were basically going to have a year of that,” English said. “So, at that point, you’re just sitting here looking at your options. To me, even though technically it was an option to buy the modulars, it really wasn’t an option. I mean, that was never anything that was considered, but when you’re looking at all options, you look at all options. We didn’t want that to become a long-term home for anyone. It served its purpose for three years, but it didn’t need to be the long-term solution to anything.”

The third option officials had was to efficiently utilize resources and space already available within the district to accommodate Love Chapel’s students and staff. Since it had been decided that the modulars would not be purchased, English said the situation presented the “perfect opportunity” to implement a systemwide reconfiguration, something he had wanted to see Unicoi County accomplish even before landing the director’s job.

“The day I interviewed for this job, that’s one of the first things I talked about as a vision of wanting to get to that, and it’s something that the board fully supported and saw, as well,” English said.

English, though, preferred to see Unicoi County Schools return to its previous K-8 configuration.

“I personally, long before the sinkhole, I kind of have always liked the idea of elementary kids getting to stay at a location, the same location, as long as they can,” English said. “For me, if we could’ve gone K-8, we would’ve gone back K-8. I think the longer you can leave kids with a principal they’re familiar with, a building they’re familiar with, staff they’re familiar with, the better.”

Unicoi County Schools was a K-8 system before the middle school concept was introduced here in the early 1990s. What was, until the start of the 2016-17 school year, Unicoi County Intermediate School served as the county’s middle school until the county’s current 6-8 middle school opened at the start of the 2010-11 school year.

With the opening of the new middle school just across the street, the prior middle school became Unicoi County Intermediate School. The intermediate school would house Unicoi County’s 4th and 5th grade students, and school system officials viewed the intermediate school as a way to help these students transition to the middle school environment.

But English felt the intermediate school concept presented issues. He said just as 3rd grade students were likely becoming comfortable with their elementary school surroundings, they would have to start school in a new building the following year. The situation, English said, was the same for students at the intermediate school, who would be heading to the middle school just as they were likely becoming contented in the intermediate school.

“When we went to the intermediate concept, we felt like that was a lot of start and stops for our kids,” English said.

After some assessment, it was determined that a K-8 configuration, which would keep students in one location for a longer period of time, was not viable.

“Our buildings couldn’t hold K-8, but we just liked the idea of letting kids connect to a school longer, getting comfortable there,” English said. “We felt like with the intermediate concept we had lost a lot of that connectedness that our families and kids felt to schools.”

However, it was determined that a K-5 configuration was feasible. Under this setup the intermediate concept would be completely eliminated. The county’s elementary students would attend one elementary school through 5th grade before heading off to Unicoi County Middle School for grades 6-8. Following 8th grade, these students would attend classes at Unicoi County High School.

The move to a K-5 district would not be made without a great deal of discussion and deliberation. English said he spent much of the 2015-16 school year walking the school system’s facilities, looking at class sizes, assessing available space, and pitching plans on how officials could make the reconfiguration work.

English said he discussed the proposal with the school system’s teachers and principals. Several town hall meetings were held across Unicoi County to garner input from the parents and families of the students who would be impacted by the move. English said he was encouraged by the feedback provided by these stakeholders.

“It’s the one thing that I can say, because it probably never happens, that 100 percent of the feedback I had before we made the decision and since we made the decision was positive,” English said. “I think families really wanted the move.”

Making the reconfiguration happen would be no easy feat. It would involve what essentially amounted to the closure of one of the county’s school and that facility’s subsequent transformation necessary to prepare a new crop of students for relocation from their temporary base.

The move toward reconfiguration was made official in February 2016 when the Unicoi County Board of Education voted to essentially eliminate Unicoi County Intermediate School and return all of the county’s elementary schools to K-5 campuses. English said this move had nothing to do with the intermediate school’s teachers and administrators and was simply a way to get Love Chapel’s students and staff into a brick and mortar facility while allowing the county’s elementary school students to stay in one place longer.

But the former intermediate school would play a key role in the reconfiguration, as the facility would soon undergo a facelift to become the new Love Chapel Elementary School.

The former intermediate school’s metamorphosis began last summer. Due to a short turnaround between the end of the 2015-16 school year and the start of the 2016-17, the work to convert the intermediate school to the new K-5 Love Chapel had to be completed quickly.

“The day school ended, we had to get the move started because summers are short and to get all accomplished that we needed to get accomplished it started the day kids were picking up report cards,” English said.

Unicoi County Schools accomplished its mission, and the 2016-17 school year marked the first time in four years Love Chapel Elementary School’s students and staff had been under one roof. And, according to Unicoi County Schools officials, Love Chapel’s staff was grateful for the move, as the new surroundings were a far cry from the modulars.

“You appreciate things like hallways and just being able to go to a gym or a commons space, a library that’s large enough to hold a classroom and playgrounds, so many of the aspects of school that sometimes we take for granted that are really important and special parts of a child’s day,” said Unicoi County Schools Elementary Curriculum Supervisor Jenifer Lingerfelt.

Since Unicoi County Intermediate School was to be no more, local school officials also spent a great deal of time last summer getting the intermediate school’s teachers moved into elementary schools throughout the district.

“For them to have to go out and make a physical move to a Temple Hill, a Unicoi, a Rock Creek, and some got to stay, that’s tough,” English said. “But I think even the 4th and 5th grade teachers would say, ‘Gosh, yeah, it’s been difficult on us to move but we can’t argue that K-5 is a better concept,’ and I think in hindsight people – the teachers, the kids, the families – would say that it’s been a positive experience.”

Aside from the emotional ties many had to the intermediate school, there was also the matter of space. Room had to be made in the county’s elementary schools to accommodate the 4-5 students and teachers.

Unicoi Elementary School Principal Mike Riddell said space for students and six teachers needed to be made at his school prior to the start of the 2016-17 school year.

“We had to move several of the teachers that were already in the school in the K-3 to different classrooms,” Riddell said. “So not only was it the move of the 4th and 5th coming in, but we had to shuffle around within our school to make room for them because we wanted to keep them, location-wise, as close as possible to each other.”

The prep work completed at Unicoi Elementary School was also done at the county’s other elementary schools, English said. With the relocation of desks, supplies and shelves, the summer of 2016 was physically taxing for the system’s staff, English said. But it was mentally taxing as well, as officials had to determine which elementary school each of the intermediate school’s teachers would call home moving forward. English said officials worked to determine the “best fit” for each educator.

“To get teachers that had to move to a spot where they were comfortable and wanted to be and felt good about it, a lot of discussion and thought went into that,” English said.

English also said system officials were forced to be creative in their scheduling, as elementary schools now had additional grade levels for which to schedule lunch and recess. Some teachers had to share classroom space to make the reconfiguration work.

“It’s not just a physical move,” Riddell said. “It’s all the things within the school, too, on a daily basis that you have to think about.”

Although questions over its future have been posed for years, Temple Hill Elementary School was also vital to the reconfiguration, as space there was required to make the move happen, English said.

Questions over Temple Hill’s fate were put to rest last year as the local school board moved to make a significant investment in the facility. Unicoi County Schools received around $4 million in insurance funds from the closure of the former Love Chapel Elementary School. Around $3 million from this settlement was used to pay for the three-year lease of the modular units. In March 2016, the school board awarded a bid of a little more than $1 million to Johnson City-based Preston Construction to complete renovations at Temple Hill. The remaining $1 million from the insurance proceeds was used to pay for this work.

Upgrades and improvements completed at Temple Hill last summer included the installation of a new gymnasium floor, a new roof, new playground equipment and retrofitted bathrooms, new electrical wiring and a new fire alarm system, and the installation of new HVAC units in each classroom.

“That community deserves and needs a school,” English said. “We’re doing some things to try to increase the numbers there and beef up the numbers there but, truly, when we talk about space, Temple Hill had to be part of that equation. You couldn’t do K-5 without Temple Hill. Rock Creek, Love Chapel and Unicoi couldn’t take on the students.”

While English said the reconfiguration move was made with the best interests of Unicoi County’s students in mind, there were also some positive financial ramifications for the county. The construction of a new school would have cost the county in the neighborhood of $14 million, English said.

“We did feel like it was a prudent move from a taxpayer and monetary standpoint as well, because if we ever go to the County Commission or if we go to this county and ask for a new school, it’s going to be because we need one, not necessarily because we would just like to have one,” English said.

The school system, English said, put about $28,000 into the new Love Chapel to ready it for the incoming students. Otherwise, he said the cost of reconfiguration was the time associated with the moves necessary to make it happen.

Love Chapel’s teachers also put their own time and resources into the building, purchasing decorative items and painting murals to individualize their classrooms and provide students with a unique experience.

“I wouldn’t want to know what teachers spent,” English said.

“I think their staff in particular were in a unique situation, but it created an opportunity for them to think differently and to be creative and, because of those times they were in modulars trying to problem solve, ‘How can we provide a really special experience for our students with what we have,’ that they’ve carried that forward and made Love Chapel a real unique building and experience,” Lingerfelt said.

Lingerfelt added educators across Unicoi County Schools have responded positively to the reconfiguration.

“In several conversations with the teachers, they, especially the intermediate school teachers that came back into the elementary setting, were pleased to get to experience more of the elementary culture,” she said. “They had some tight connections themselves at the intermediate school, and they still work collaboratively planning for the content at the 4-5 level, but I think to be back into the elementary schools and to get to know children from the time they come to school as a 5-year-old and then get to follow them all the way until they leave to middle school, it’s a special part of the teacher journey to be able to see a child grow over time. I think that’s something that they’ve really appreciated.”

English said it’s just as special for students to spend their elementary years in familiar surroundings.

“I think for kids, getting to see a teacher that they had in kindergarten and for teachers getting to see the kid they had in kindergarten and what they look like in 5th grade, I think that’s big both ways, for our teachers and our kids to have those familiar faces and to kind of watch them grow up, literally, through 5th grade,” English said.

Parents have offered positive feedback thus far, according to school system officials. Both English and Riddell said prior to the reconfiguration, many parents and families expressed concern over students essentially graduating to a new school at the end of their 3rd grade year. These families, Riddell said, are appreciative for the extra time their children will remain in an elementary school setting.

“As a matter of fact, when we were just K-3, every year when the 3rd grade kids would leave, their parents would say, ‘I don’t want them to leave. They’re too little to go to a different school right now,’ and they didn’t want them to have a 4-5, overwhelmingly, which that was the setup at that time,” Riddell said. “But they all have had, from what I’ve seen and what they’ve told me, positive experiences from them coming back.”

As for the students, school system officials concur they have also responded well to the reconfiguration.

“Kids are resilient,” Riddell said, adding 5th grade students at Unicoi Elementary School during the 2016-17 school year served as “mentors” to kindergarten and 1st grade students, going into the classrooms of younger students to read to them and help lead group activities.

“It seemed like we had happy kids, and that’s the most important thing to us – happy kids,” English said. “And our families seemed to enjoy the move.”

According to officials, the positive feedback from teachers, students and families does not mean the new configuration will be without changes. Measures aimed at potentially improving the setup will be studied throughout the summer and the upcoming school year.

“It may be a few years before it all gets perfected,” Riddell said.

And, while he said the school system is “not there yet” and the move is not one he is “pushing for,” English said he has a 10- to 20-year vision for Unicoi County Schools. English said he would like to eventually see new elementary schools constructed on the north and south ends of the county to serve students in those areas, with the middle school and high school arrangement left intact. This would give the district four schools and would increase efficiency, English said.

In the meantime, the reconfiguration implemented at the start of the 2016-17 school year appears to be a sound solution for the foreseeable future, English said.

“Just like anywhere, facilities don’t last forever and, ultimately, we’re certainly going to look at that but, as far as reconfiguration, I see K-5, 6-8 and high school as our long-term fix,” English said. “And, who knows, maybe you get to K-8 again one day.”

At this time last year, the school system was in the middle of the move necessary to convert the district to a K-5 configuration. With the heavy lifting out of the way, system officials now have the summer to not only prepare for the upcoming school year but reflect on 2016-17 now that it is in the books. These officials agree the reconfiguration was a success and the best possible move for Unicoi County Schools.

“It’s one of those things you plan for a year and you hope and you think all things are covered, but then looking back on it and reflecting back on it, I think it says so much about the teachers and the principals and the administration and the folks involved that it really was, I feel like, a smooth transition,” English said. “It was a big change for our school system, but I feel like our families would say and our students would say and our staff would say that it went really well.”