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.


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.“


More than just a coach


Jeffery Price, 56, loves to mow his lawn.

After he’s finished, he is able to stand on his back deck, gaze out across the yard and see a visible difference from when he started.

Teaching Advanced Placement English at Science Hill High School does not have the same tangible takeaway.

“[It’s hard to] trust that what you’re doing is going to help someone in life,” said Price.

Price began teaching special education 27 years ago in his hometown of Abingdon, Virginia, but moved to Jefferson County Schools as an English teacher. He transferred to Science Hill in 1999.

“Things have come and gone,” said Price. “When I first started teaching, I thought I was really good, and then I realized I was really, really not good. I know more about kids and what I’m teaching than I did.”

Price graduated from Carson-Newman University with a bachelor of arts degree in religion and philosophy in 1983. He returned in 1991 and received his teaching certification and English minor.

Since then, Price has drastically improved in the eyes of his colleagues. Price received the Teacher of the Year distinction in 2016 from his school, and then later a selection committee confirmed him.

“When you’re a coach and a man you have to live a lot of things down because of preconceived notions about why you’re doing what you’re doing,” said Price. “It’s gratifying to get that kind of respect from your faculty.”

Price’s good friend and co-worker Timothy Vanthournout believes it was Price’s reputation in the community that earned him the distinction.

“He changes lives of his students with the way he develops relationships and the expectation of excellence he continually gets students to achieve,” said Vanthournout.

Price took over AP English 10 years ago and is now the English Department Chair. In that time, the average number of students taking the AP English Exam has doubled.

“The way Jeff relates to students is his best quality,” said Vanthournout. “His ability to connect with students in his classroom is the foundation of who he is and how he creates a classroom environment that is second to none.”

Price’s classroom is covered in vibrant posters of novels and eccentric props used for acting out plays. The students sit facing one another surrounding Price, who stands in the middle of the room. Students are unafraid to voice their concerns to their teacher, and they value his opinion.

“I like the AP classes because the kids are willing to learn,” said Price. “They’re smarter than I am. I try to bring [material] into the classroom that has been meaningful to me and will make them think.”

Price covers a wide range of material in his AP courses. The first semester is spent studying British Literature, and by the end of the second semester, the class will have read three novels, three plays and extensive amounts of poetry.

“I’m not teaching English,” said Price. “I’m teaching people.”

Price said the most important professional development that he engages in is the AP English readings. For one week in June for the past seven years, Price and other AP English teachers from across the country have met to grade student essays for eight hours each day.

“It can be tedious at times, but I learn a lot,” said Price. “If it weren’t for the exams, the class would be a lot more fun because we wouldn’t have the writing or the multiple choice. But the AP exam actually teaches you a skill set that when you get through with that test-taking mentality, you can become a better reader and writer.”

In addition to teaching his senior-level English courses, Price also heads the Liberty Bell Middle School wrestling program. He has coached in five different schools, including Science Hill from 1999 to 2013, when he took over at Liberty Bell. Every school that Price has coached has received multiple conference titles and some regional and state championships under his instruction.

“Good coaches are almost always good teachers,” said Price. “Wrestling is the best sport to enforce qualities in you that you can apply to everything you do.”

Jason Shelton, the head wrestling coach at Greeneville Middle School, developed a relationship with Price 10 years ago as his rival. Now, the two consider each other to be friends.

“He brings out the best in me in coaching,” said Shelton. “I would consider myself lucky to have achieved what he has in athletics. Yet, at the same time, I know he is only a phone call away if I ever need to talk to him.”

Price is easily accessible to all of his former students and wrestlers as well.

“Coach Price has a positive impact on all who come in contact with him,” said Vanthournout. “It is commonplace for former students and athletes to seek out Coach Price just to catch up. This shows me that he has made an incredible mark on their lives.”

Away from his coaching and teaching responsibilities, Price leads a relaxing life. His wife of 18 years, Julie, is the counseling director at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Sullivan County. His stepson Tyler works at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

“She’s the best person I’ve ever known,” said Price about Julie. “But they’re both really good at perspective. They’ve taught me a lot about having patience.”

The Prices enjoy walking their dog and following the Detroit Tigers during the season. Price also enjoys re-reading his favorite book, “The Once and Future King.”

“The whole idea of the book is that you use your power to make the world a better place,” said Price. “To me, that’s just how the world ought to work.”

To Price, English isn’t necessarily the most important subject taught in a classroom.

“I want [my students] to think for themselves, but I want them to be smart about it,” said Price. “[I want them] to live out that authorial idea that you’re going to have a gift or a power and you need to try to use it to help other people.”


Teachers get Tenured

The Washington County Board of Education recognized 28 employees for achieving tenure at its March 7 meeting.

“We are very proud of you,” Superintendent Kimber Halliburton told the recipients. “And we hope you stay with us because we think there’s even more great things coming to Washington County, and we don’t want to lose you. We want to keep you happy here.”

Haley Carr, a fourth grade teacher at Lamar Elementary, has no intention of leaving her school system now that she has achieved tenure.

“I am a product of the Washington County education system,” said Carr. “I want to be able to give back in the community.”

This is the second year that teachers have been awarded tenure under the new Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model. TEAM requires that a teacher stay in the same position for at least five years instead of three. Teachers who received tenure under the former system are not required to reapply.

On April 15, 2011, Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Tennessee Teacher Tenure Act that increased the criteria for a teacher to receive tenure. In addition to in-class evaluations, teachers also must have outstanding test scores from their students for two consecutive years before being awarded tenure.

“I think [the state] changed the criteria to make sure that the only teachers getting tenure were going to be consistent with getting good marks,” said Emily Couch, a sophomore studying education at ETSU.

However, tenure no longer secures an educator’s job. Teachers remain accountable for their students’ annual test scores. After two years of poor testing,  teachers may be stripped of their tenure recognition. This makes it easier for a teacher to be fired.

“Tenure is now earned, not given to educators,” Carr said. “I consider tenure a great milestone for teachers who have consistently demonstrated effectiveness and commitment.”

Emily Freitag, former assistant commissioner for curriculum and instruction in Tennessee, told the TEAM Reform Support Network that she expects regular improvements to the program.

“We see this as an arc of work rather than a one-year plan,” Freitag said. “We focus on what we want to see in the future, recognizing that we learn as we go.”

This means that the two-year limit on poor test scores could change.

It remains difficult for educators to be fired if they have tenure and acceptable test scores. However, sometimes a situation ensues that requires a school system to take action against one of their employees.

At the March board meeting, the audience was updated on the status of Jennifer Collins, a fifth-grade teacher fired from Gray Elementary for insubordination and unprofessional conduct.

Collins was dismissed from Washington County Schools on Oct. 28, 2016. This was a result of numerous complaints from parents and students dating back to 2014. Collins was accused of kissing, hugging and rubbing students on the head.

She did not deny the claims, but did request a hearing with an impartial hearing officer. Judge Randy Kennedy listened to testimony for two days before sending his decision to the board on Jan. 25. He released 14 findings in favor of Collins’ dismissal.

Collins was unavailable for comment.

On Feb. 6, Collins made an appeal of Kennedy’s decision to the board. In April, the board will vote one of four ways: to sustain the judgment of Judge Kennedy, to send the record back if additional evidence is necessary, to revise the penalty or to reverse the decision.

“[My] opinion is termination is in the best interest of student safety,” said Halliburton. “And we do have a sitting juvenile court judge as an impartial hearing officer. So, I will be asking this board to sustain the decision.”

If Collins did not have tenure, or was tenured under the new system, this process would be simplified. However, because she is tenured under the original program, it is difficult for her to lose her job.

“It is clear that tenure is effective in large portions of our education system,” said Carr. “But I feel that there are still aspects that need to improvement in order to fairly and fully provide tenure.”

Virginia McCoy, the Tennessee Education Association’s staff attorney, is concerned that school administrations are not granting tenure to teachers who met the criteria. She spoke to TEA communications liaison Amanda Cheney on Feb. 6.

“Our number one priority is that TEA members are treated fairly,” McCoy said. “Our legal team is working hard to ensure school districts are following state law and moving forward with recommending eligible teachers for tenure status.”

Regardless of the lack of safety that tenure used to provide to educators’ jobs, teachers remain optimistic.

“Knowing that I have to have a level of effectiveness…will keep me striving to do my best in my profession for my students and myself,” said Carr.

coursework, elementary

Scholastic Book Fair

The metal crates rose like a fortress above the heads of the Lake Ridge Elementary students, encasing books, posters and gummy-bear-scented erasers. The Scholastic Book Fair was in town at last.

On Feb. 6, the doors to the library opened, revealing popular children’s books like “Making Bombs for Hitler,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Enemy Above.”

“[The kids] love it,” said Lake Ridge librarian Maria LaBarbera. “They [were] lined up at the door Monday morning with a bag full of change.”

LaBarbera partnered with Scholastic when she began working at Lake Ridge in 2006. Her contract with the company enables her to keep 25 percent of the $24,500 profit made in eight days. The book fair was the biggest fundraiser for the library program, and teachers were allowed input on what was purchased.

“It buys things for centers like 3-D pens and materials to run our 3-D printer,” said LaBarbera. “Also decorative things like signage, beanbags, things that make this place feel welcoming and homey.”

It takes LaBarbera the entire month of January to plan for the book fair. She hosts several activities leading up to the event, such as the author preview video showing what will be offered at the fair. Then the children are prepared for the Scholastic-sponsored All for Books program, which is funded by students bringing in spare change for the benefit of their peers.

“[Scholastic matches] one book for every dollar that we raise for children’s charity, but all that money stays here in our building,” said LaBarbera.

The All for Books program allows students to purchase books if they don’t have the money, and the leftover funds are given to teachers for classroom libraries. This year Lake Ridge collected $6,800 in loose change.

“That’s important for our kids especially to learn how to give back and learn that it’s not all about us; it’s also about others,” said LaBarbera.

Students also have the opportunity to earn free books throughout the year through “myON,” an online reading program that tracks student engagement in books. Cathy Botts, a multiage teacher at Lake Ridge, explained why reading is so important.

“I tell mine, ‘If you all want to drive a car and you can’t read, then you can’t pass your driver’s license test, and you will not be driving a car,’” she said.

Botts took some of her weaker readers to the book fair to pick out books for her classroom.

“They just got extra excited,” said Botts. “They felt so important, and they actually have been reading more this week. I’ll probably do that every year until I retire.”

Students are allowed to peruse the book fair by themselves, something that isn’t typical in the real world.

“We don’t take a kindergartener to the mall and say ‘OK, go pick out what you want, and I’ll meet you back at the food court,’” said Botts. “Just having that autonomy of shopping by themselves, oh my goodness, they think that is the greatest thing. They take that shopping list home, and they just feel so important.”

The final event of the book fair occurred on Valentine’s Day. The children invited their grandparents to eat lunch, and then they all proceeded to the library to buy books. An estimated 100 grandparents attended this year.

“I think our parent involvement is a huge part of it because when you have so much extra help, you can do more,” said LaBarbera. “And the kids just end up benefitting from it, as well as the teachers.”

The families of students helped serve as well. Of the 118 volunteering slots that LaBarbera requested, 90 percent of them were filled.

Lynda Burns, an active parent to fourth-grader Allison, volunteered at the book fair all day everyday, as she has for the past five years.

“I think it’s a good way for parents to get to know the children, the staff, and it’s just interesting to be here,” said Burns.

Older age groups also help out with reading in the classroom.

“The little ones come in, and they look up to the big kids,” said Botts. “And when these big kids are sitting there saying ‘Hey man, did you know alligators…’(we have a lot of nonfiction books now), it just draws the little kids into wanting to read. If the intrinsic desire is there, it will happen.”

From a student’s perspective, the book fair’s mystique is simple.

“Just the fact that there are lots and lots of books and all the little popular gadget thingies is enough for me,” said Allison.