Retiring principal Larry Howell, standing left, addresses the Unicoi County Board of Education during a meeting on Sept. 13. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County Board of Education wasted no time in electing officers for the next year during a meeting held on Thursday, Sept. 13, at the Central Office

The officers were voted in unanimously in a 6-0 vote. Tyler Engle, who attended the meeting via teleconference, was elected board chairman. Steve Willis was elected vice-chairman and Steve Scott was elected as athletic council representative.

The board then shifted gears and received data from two recent programs that are geared at improving the scores of county students. The Aspire Book Bus, a school bus that was remodeled into a moving library and multimedia center, was on hand for the public to view. This bus allowed educators to reach out to the students during the summer months and was used to help improve overall literacy scores.

Elementary Curriculum Supervisor Jenifer Lingerfelt stated Aspire Book Bus has been a project many years in the making

“I am also so very thankful for the support of our community,” Lingerfelt said. “We have had several private donations that have helped us secure books for check out, and will have another round of book drives in the spring to fill the bus with books the children can take home and keep.”

The Aspire Book Bus and the Read to Be Ready Camp reached out to roughly 560 students in recent months. The Read to Be Ready Camp encouraged children to read and even took children on field trips centered around most of the books they read. One field trip took the children to Cracker Barrel where some of the children were able to read from the menu and order for themselves for the first time.

According to the data provided to the board, children without a summer reading routine can lose 1-3 months of skills. This loss can lead to three years of reading skills by the time a student reaches the end of fifth grade. The Aspire Book Bus and Read to Be Ready programs inspired the students by enforcing their motto of “read about it, think about it, talk about it and write about it.”

According to the data Lingerfelt presented, the students average reading accuracy rate improved from 69.5 percent to 80.6 percent. The average reading comprehension rate rose from 51.4 percent to 64.2 percent.

This early data has motivated the Aspire Book Bus to keep moving through the school months as well.

“We are working with the school librarians to plan several visits to the schools and also offer several off-site family nights connected to the book bus,” Lingerfelt said. “I’m also very excited that Lori Ann Wright is planning something extraordinary with her high school students and we continue to partner with RISE Erwin to connect with community planned events.”

Lingerfelt is currently looking into getting more grants to expand and enhance the program. To keep up with updates and how to help out with these programs, please visit the Unicoi County Schools Aspire Book Bus page on Facebook.

While the Aspire Book Bus and Read to Be Ready programs helped transform the lives of younger children, UC Advance focused on older children. Unicoi County Schools UC Advance Coordinator Mark Fleenor addressed the board last week and shared more good news.

Fleenor opened by reading a testimonial from a parent, explaining that UC Advance has been a blessing to both the parent and the student.

“I once heard that liars figure, but figures don’t lie,” Fleenor said.

He also said that in the first years data, that there were 163 earned credits from those active in UC Advance. In year two they finished with 383 credits – a 135 percent increase in a year. There were only 39 students enrolled in UC Advance in the first year, but in the second year there were 57 students enrolled.

“These figures show you are getting a good return on investment,” Fleenor said.

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In other business, the board honored Larry Howell, former principal of Rock Creek Elementary School and a recent retiree.

“I’ve been working with Mr. Howell since I was a senior in high school when he was my track coach,” Director of Schools John English said. “I have the utmost respect for him. His kids knew he cared about them.”

Howell is still leading the middle school football team through a great season so far.

“As a child, I saw lights on the hill and I was drawn to the lights like a moth to a flame,” Howell said. “Since then I’ve been able to play for Unicoi County, coach for Unicoi County, and have a career at Unicoi County and it’s been amazing. I’m proud to be from Unicoi County and I will be a Blue Devil until I die.”

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In final business, the board voted unanimously to approve the same service of Lewis & Associates to audit the school nutrition funds and the school funds.

The board also voted unanimously to test for lead in drinking water every two years, to detail guidelines on homebound instruction and to comply with changes to TSSAA.

The board voted unanimously to approve the seventh grade field trip to Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg/Knoxville on May 8-10, 2019.