Star Lab

Check out my video on YouTube of the Star Lab at Lake Ridge Elementary School!

During the week of April 20, Lake Ridge Elementary School hosted its annual Star Lab event for students ranging from grades one through four. Maria LaBarbera, the librarian at Lake Ridge, has directed the Star Lab since 2006.

The Star Lab cost the Johnson City School System an estimated $25,000 to buy. The Star Lab inflatable is housed at Fairmont Elementary and is shared among the other schools throughout the year. Each grade level has a set of state standards that can be covered during the Star Lab experience.

Robyn Lamb, a 3rd grade teacher at Lake Ridge, believes that the Star Lab is a great hands-on experience for students.

Samuel Moony, a fourth grade student, believes that events like Star Lab are more beneficial than sitting in a classroom.

The students anticipate the event long before it happens. LaBarbera said that students remember the Star Lab even after they’ve graduated.


Earth Day Science March

I stand with two science educators from Greeneville, Tennessee, at the Science March.

Over 2,000 people spent their Earth Day marching through the streets of downtown Asheville, North Carolina, helping to set an “unprecedented” number of people demonstrating in the name of science.
“I worry that policy makers and pundits have ulterior motives for spreading misinformation,” said Marie Sharpe, a seventh-grade science teacher from Greeneville, Tennessee. “They typically have the platforms to do so.”The record turnout across the country is attributed to the current presidential administration, according to the Washington Post.

The Science March in Asheville was one of approximately 60 worldwide. There were nearly 35,000 #sciencemarch posts on Instagram alone.

“I hope that the demonstrations will empower people to examine science-related issues with a critical eye, rather than taking information from non-experts at face value,” said the teacher.

Buncombe County High School student Luke Shealy organized the event.

“As soon as I heard about the march, I planned on attending,” said Sharpe. “It was about a month out that I made hotel reservations.”

The march began at in Aston Park and took an hour to complete. People arrived with signs depicting phrases like “There is no PLANet B,” “Stop the freakin’ frackin'” and “the oceans are rising, and so are we.”

At the march’s ending in Pack Square, Shealy introduced six prominent members of the community who advocated for scientific funding. The event was so successful that t-shirts are being reprinted for sale.

“My participation was intended to show my students that my beliefs are more than a sign on the wall, that actions are necessary to ensure innovations will persist and that the world will continue to benefit from science exploration,” said Sharpe.



Low Teacher Morale

For years now, public school teachers across the globe have struggled to maintain their morale.

Whether it’s due to the pressures of state testing, the lack of interest from students or the inability to control their own classrooms, teachers’ low morale has a trickle-down effect that will affect the curiosity of children.

“The biggest thing I hear teachers complaining about [are] when they are asked to do something,” said Brenda Ottinger, principal of Highland Elementary School in Greeneville, Tennessee. “They always say, ‘I thought [the school system] was going to take things off of us, instead of putting more things on us,’ no matter how small something is they are asked to do.”

Ottinger has worked in the Greeneville City Schools System for 25 years, and has always seen an an influx in low teacher morale.

“[Teachers] become stressed and don’t feel like they are supported by the administration both at the school level and the system level,” said Ottinger.

According to Ottinger, teacher morale seems to be getting worse. She said that the teachers who complain the most are the teachers with the most discipline problems in the classroom.

“Teachers are held to such high standards,” said Ottinger. “Teacher evaluation now includes student [test] scores, when the standards are sometimes not appropriate for the grade level.”

Highland Elementary School is also the smallest school in the district, as well as the lowest socioeconomic school. This, along with Highland’s high number of transient students, makes it hard for teachers to prepare them for the future.

“I think right now, reading teachers are feeling the greatest pressure,” Ottinger said. “Reading has historically low test scores.”

Of course, low teacher morale affects the students just as much as the teachers. Their teaching gets lazy and they might not push their students as hard as they should.

“[It’s important to] constantly try to encourage and build teachers up,” Ottinger said. “Even just giving them a note or a candy bar can be the difference between a bad day and a good one.”

Highland isn’t alone in this struggle. The strenuous nature of the classroom has put unprecedented amounts of pressure on teachers.

“Many times you can see a domino effect if you let the poor teacher morale continue,” Ottinger said. “You need to stop it as soon as you can.”


Tennessee Online Public School

Established in 2012, The Tennessee Online Public School is the only virtual high school that supports students on a statewide level.

Based in Bristol, Tennessee, TOPS was made possible by the Virtual Schools Act of 2011. Principal Jason Horne designed the school and has led it since its founding. TOPS is currently the highest performing virtual school in Tennessee with a budget of $485,000.

“We don’t have a target student,” said Horne. “But our niche has been students who need a flexible schedule.”

TOPS uses an online learning management system called Canvas to interact with its students. On the site, students are able to watch videos made by their teachers, complete course assignments and keep track of their progress. They are also equipped with a Google Drive to hold all of their files. Students are held accountable through weekly due dates, which determine their course grades as well as their attendance.

“We still get some truancy issues,” said Horne. “And we always have procrastination issues.”

Students are able to apply online and submit a one-time application fee of $125. The acceptance rate at TOPS is approximately 85 percent, and roughly 250 students are served each year. This year, TOPS is expected to have a graduation rate of 100 percent.

“We do require students to be on track to graduate on time,” said Horne. “And we have determined that students coming in with a 2.5 or better are typically responsible enough to handle the independent required by online education.”

Students who attend a brick-and-mortar school are also invited to apply as dual-enrollment students.

Not all of a TOPS student’s time is spent at home online. TOPS is NCAA approved for Division I sports as well. The school co-ops with Tennessee High School in Bristol, Tennessee so that some students may pursue an athletic career.

TOPS also supports student-led clubs and organizations. Students vote whether or not to have a prom, and an in-person graduation ceremony concludes each year. TOPS requires that each student complete 25 community service hours annually in order to keep them involved in their own communities. The students also are given points for attending social events.

“You don’t have to sit through things you don’t like,” said Horne. “You don’t have to put up with nonsense from people. You don’t have to wake up at a certain time, or be somewhere from 7:30-2:30, Monday through Friday. You don’t have to worry about what someone thinks about [you].”

However, there are some hands-on opportunities that students are unable to receive from an online platform. Electives like welding, culinary arts and agriculture must be accessed elsewhere.

Additionally, students are unable to take their End of Course tests online without supervision. They must travel to either Bristol, Knoxville, Nashville or Memphis to sign in and sit through the exam in person.

“This year, we’re doing paper and pencil tests,” said Horne. “Next year and beyond, our tests will be administrated on computer [at the four testing centers].”

In the past, TOPS has scored in level five for growth and has the highest level of achievement in the state.

Horne explained the independence and drive that a student must have to succeed in his school.

“Nobody is going to hold your hand and tell you to get your work in,” said Horne. “That happens after you’ve already not gotten it in. Nobody is going to reach out to make friends with you because they notice you’re lonely. Nobody is going to shame you for not showering.”


Special Education Accommodations

Six pre-kindergarten students sit in a circle discussing the frogs they learned about last week. Their teacher looks down at them and smiles; this is a sign of progress.

Heather LeMay does not teach a typical class at Southside Elementary in Johnson City, Tennessee. She teaches children with disabilities.

“In pre-k, it’s mostly how to acquire knowledge,” LeMay said. “My goal is to make them kindergarten-ready by making sure that they can function.”

Since 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees a “free, appropriate, public education” to any disabled child from age 3 to 21. However, the program determining a child’s eligibility for such services is becoming more rigorous.

“Before, you could just make a referral, and that was it,” LeMay said. “There was a huge over identification of students who just didn’t need [special education services].”

Before starting at Southside, LeMay spent three years at West High School in Morristown, Tennessee, as a Comprehensive Development Classroom teacher. A CDC classroom is reserved for students with severe disabilities. Through both experiences, she saw where there was a problem.

“If you’re in CDC, you’ve pretty much been there your whole life, and that really didn’t sit well with me,” LeMay said. “The only reason those students were in my [high school] class was because someone didn’t make a better choice for them when they were younger.”

LeMay transitioned to pre-k special education with that knowledge in mind. Every afternoon she attends a school and meets with parents who think their 2-year-olds are delayed. LeMay then conducts evaluations on the children so she can tell if they qualify for her program.

“If [the children] get early intervention services, the school is required by the state to have a plan for them ready to go when they turn 3,” LeMay said. “There can’t be any lapse in services.”

Children who do not qualify for services are referred to the Head Start Program. It is possible that these children may still have health impairments, but they are not low-functioning enough to receive extra care outside a normal school environment.

“It’s not that they can’t function in a classroom,” LeMay said. “They just need a little extra help.”

For these students, a 504 Plan is made. This accommodates a child with impairments, such as an Attention Deficit Disorder and Cerebral Palsy. Students may be given extended time on state exams or preferential seating in the classroom.

If a child does qualify, LeMay immediately begins to make an Individualized Education Plan for success.

“An IEP is for students with a disability that impedes their learning in a regular classroom setting,” LeMay said. “You have to make goals for every deficit area.”

LeMay’s classroom is not focused around worksheets or bookwork. She uses multi-step activities that require more thinking.

“I try to do a multi-sensory every day,” LeMay said. “And I try to hit every type of learner. Even if you’re not that type of learner, you’re still getting that content over and over again.”

LeMay’s caseload is broken up by age groups. Three-year-olds attend school on Monday and Tuesday mornings, where they work on basic tasks like cleaning workspaces, walking in the hallway, and hanging up coats.

“I think people think I’m a little Hitler,” LeMay said. “I won’t do anything for my kids. I don’t need to be teaching colors if you’re rolling around on the floor. You’re just not ready.”

Her 4-year-olds attend on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Five-year-olds go to school everyday. By age 6, they are usually ready for the next step. This is a transition to either a regular kindergarten classroom or a CDC environment.

“My goal is that you don’t go to CDC just because you’re hard to deal with or you aren’t progressing as quickly as other students,” LeMay said. “CDC needs to be reserved for the severely disabled, not the severely lazy or the severely defiant.”

When the students make it to kindergarten, they are still able to receive extra help in the classroom.

“They don’t have to be the best,” LeMay said. “They just have to be their best.”

Every student in the U.S. is given a universal screener, which determines if there is a deficiency in student progress. This begins the Response to Intervention process, which is in its fifth year of implementation.

There are three tiers associated with RTI. Students who score at or above the 26th percentile are considered Tier One, and need no intervention. Tier Two students fall between the 11th and 25th percentile, and receive some sort of intervention. Students ranked 10th percentile and below are Tier Three.

“From there, their progress is monitored,” said Allecia Frizzell, supervisor of special education in Washington County. “And we conduct data meetings every four weeks to determine the student’s progress and what kind of intervention to implement.”

The purpose of RTI is to fill the learning gaps affecting a student’s progress in reading and math. As students improve, they are able to transition from tier to tier based on their needs.

“The majority of our students benefit from participating in the general education setting for the majority of their day,” Frizzell said. “Then they have time where they are provided intensive intervention.”

As supervisor, Frizzell is responsible for overseeing the program as a whole. She addresses parent concerns and complicated IEPS, coordinates all professional development for teachers and outlines the budget at the beginning of each year.

The majority of the special education budget goes towards 147 staff salaries. Frizzell is on the hiring committee for new instructional assistants and teachers.

“I want somebody who is on fire for working with students with disabilities,” Frizzell said. “We put a lot of money, time and effort into every employee, so I want the best.”

Madeline McCool, an ETSU special education student, hopes to be in a primary CDC class one day.

“I am reminded of perseverance every day,” said McCool about her practicum at Liberty Bell Middle School. “There are constantly going to be obstacles in life, but each day we must choose to give our best effort to conquer them, or let them defeat us.“