By Brad Hicks
Unicoi County Director of School John English said school system officials are exploring ways to make a good thing even better.
As this effort continues, a portion of the system’s policy pertaining to graduation requirements has been removed and a separate policy related to service learning hours has been suspended.
At its meeting on Thursday, March 16, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted unanimously to remove from the school system’s graduation requirements policy language requiring that Unicoi County High School students complete “a minimum of 100 hours of documented community service hours.”
In a separate measure, the board also unanimously voted to suspend the school system’s Capstone Project policy.
“We’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the last couple of months looking at our Capstone and our community service policies,” English said to the school board prior to its vote. “Over the last couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with you guys, we’ve talked with administration, we’ve talked with the staff at the high school, we’ve talked with students at the high school, so a lot of conversation in an effort to really take what’s a good thing – community service and Capstone for the kids – and see ways we can improve it.”
English added that much progress has been made on this front in the past few weeks. He said he has spoken with UCHS Principal Dr. Chris Bogart regarding the matter and received additional feedback during a recent meeting with UCHS staff who, English said, want to ensure students have “quality opportunities” for community service work.
English also said school system officials are in the process of working with community partners to bolster local opportunities.
In the meantime, completion of the community service hours will not be a requirement for graduation. Following the board’s vote, board member Garland Evely pointed out that completion of community service is no longer required by the state for high school graduation.
The now-suspended Capstone Project policy outlined the purpose of the Capstone Program and the three types of Capstone service opportunities available to students.
The policy, which also outlined how many of the 100 total service learning hours students are to complete each year they are in high school, further stated the four-year Capstone Program “would require each student at UCHS to donate a certain number of hours to the community each school year. This time would be completed outside of the school day and must be completed in one of the three approved ways. Students would be responsible filling out and collecting signatures for the appropriate paperwork as they complete their hours each year.”
Per the policy, students were also required to create and give a presentation about their Capstone experience.
English recommended the policy be suspended pending further review. He said school system officials will work to develop a new Capstone policy, which they hope to implement for the start of the 2017-18 school year.
“My recommendation there is to suspend that policy as we continue to work with the high school administration, to work with the community, and have something in place this summer that will replace this and be ready to roll out in August,” English said.
English also said he intended to meet with UCHS seniors on Tuesday to discuss how the actions taken by the Board of Education on Thursday would impact them, as well as provide an announcement to UCHS freshmen, sophomores and juniors on how they will be affected.
The Unicoi County Schools 2016-17 district-level teachers of the year were also recognized during Thursday’s meeting.
“We’re very proud of all of our teachers, and we have teachers who work extremely hard, but these three this year were recognized by their peers and then selected by a community on top of that as the best of the best for us,” English said.
Kelly Pate, a first grade reading/language arts teacher at Rock Creek Elementary School, was named the district’s Pre-K through 4th grade teacher of the year. According to the school system’s website, Pate, a level 5 teacher, has presented at multiple conferences both inside of the school system and outside of it, has helped secure grants for both Rock Creek Elementary and her own classroom, and serves as parent liaison at her school. She is helping to organize “Literacy Days,” a project that integrates writing and STEM activities offered to students throughout the year.
“She is very special, dedicated to kids, loves kids,” English said. “When you pop in her classroom every day, there’s engagement by her kids, first-graders, and that’s not always easy to do.”
Logan “Cane” Cannon, an eighth grade math teacher at Unicoi County Middle School, was named the district’s 5th through 8th grade teacher of the year. He is active in the community as a volunteer for Relay For Life and the Special Olympics. Cannon also works with the Boys’ and Girls’ Club’s study hall to help students with homework.
“We began offering Algebra I to eighth graders now in large part for his leadership and initiative,” English said of Cannon. “He’s taken that on, does a fabulous job.”
Elizabeth Watson, who teaches English at UCHS, was named as the school system’s 9th through 12th grade teacher of the year. Watson is assistant volleyball coach, tennis coach, student council sponsor and serves UCAdvance, a blended learning program combining online and traditional classwork. She provides after-school tutoring and works as a summer school teacher for English I, II, III and IV.
“She pushes her kids in the kind of inspiring way that makes them go further than they thought that they could, and she’s just phenomenal,” English said of Watson.
English said all three of the district’s teachers of the year are in the school system’s new Teacher Leader program.
The three educators recognized as the district-level teachers of the year will now move on to the regional teacher of the year competition.
English also addressed the decision to close schools this past Friday and Monday due to decreased attendance attributed to ongoing flu and stomach virus.
English said attendance was lower than usual on Monday, March 13. Schools were out March 14 and 15 due to inclement weather, but English said when classes resumed on March 16, attendance was down even further than earlier in the week.
“We saw a major uptick in staff,” English said. “I think we had seven custodians out today with flu or stomach virus. We had five bus drivers who couldn’t drive their routes because of the sickness. It’s hit our staff and certainly our students, so the hope over a long weekend is that those staff, families and students that are well can stay well. The ones that are sick can have a chance to recover and get better and, hopefully, we can get back in Tuesday and get our numbers back and the kids in the flow and finish out the year strong.
“That decision wasn’t made lightly, but we certainly felt like that was in the best interest of our families and our students and our staff.”