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Appalachian Scene: A New School for Hancock County

by Lynda McDaniel

Photo Gallery
Photo of elementary students arriving

When guidance counselor Janet Clonce single-handedly wielded a sledgehammer against the marble stalls in an old dressing room at Hancock Central Elementary School, no one thought much about it. They knew she wanted more space for the children in her counseling classes, and if that's what it took to make a new classroom, well, so be it.

Determination is a time-honored trait in Hancock County, Tennessee. It was behind the decision about ten years ago to bring in more than a dozen mobile classrooms to ease overcrowding in an aging school building. Then, when the school outgrew those units, the dressing-room demolitions began. Finally, when all possible space was filled, determination helped deliver the new $4.5 million, 60,000-square-foot Hancock County Elementary School, which opened in August 2001.

The old school was a fine old building, a landmark that had served the county well since the 1930s. But after 65 years of hard work, it was ready for retirement.

"We had simply outgrown the building," says Michael Belcher, principal of Hancock County Elementary School. "We did the best we could, and I feel as though all the kids were safe and well cared for until the last day there. Now, with 616 kids on campus, this new building has been a godsend-it allows us to have smaller classrooms and a lower teacher-to-pupil ratio. At the old school, things were already headed in the right direction, but this new building energizes all of us even more."

The new school was funded through the state of Tennessee's Basic Education Program, which started in the early '90s to equalize funding for school systems throughout the state. Mike Antrican, director of schools for Hancock County, played a key role with a group of county school superintendents that fought for this legislation. It took a great deal of effort, but now rural counties are guaranteed schools as good as those in Nashville or Knoxville.

Space to Learn

"At the old school, with 14 to 16 modular units, there were more students outside the structure than inside," Antrican recalls. "The little kids had to come into the building for their activity classes and for the lunchroom, and then go out into the elements to return to their classrooms. This new building has been quite a change."

Ask the teachers and students, the staff and principal what they like best about their new school, and a chorus sings the same answer-space. Lots of it. Now, old activities squeezed out by cramped conditions have been reinstated.

"The kids really missed a lot of the activities we did when I had more room," adds Ms. Janet, as Clonce is called here. "Now they feel as though they've been given a golden apple. When I had them in a more confined area, there were more behavioral and control problems. So far, this year has gone great."

New features include a modern computer lab, which hosts about 30 new high-end computers, several printers, and a scanner. Students nimbly work the keyboards to surf the Internet, downloading photographs of Appaloosa horses for one report and finding facts about lions for another. Nearby, the library has room for tables and chairs for studying and floor space for storytelling and presentations, as well as computers for Internet access. The cafeteria, decorated with colorful cutouts and seasonal produce and flowers, hosts new stainless-steel digital equipment designed to be efficient and easy to clean.

"We've got so much space now," says cafeteria worker Doris Wolfe. "It's wonderful, and the food tastes better, too." Inside the lunchroom, the children's whoops and hollers show that they agree.

The students also benefit from the new school's on-campus clinic. A full-time registered nurse and a visiting physician's assistant are one reason Belcher considers this clinic an important asset for the county.

"I see the clinic as a way of reaching all the children in the county. If some children aren't getting all the medical care they need at home, a teacher can pick up on that and send them to the clinic, where they get their needs taken care of," he explains. "At the same time, it gives me a sense of security knowing that if we have a medical emergency, we can respond quickly."

Added space means that art and music can play an expanded role in the students' lives. Last year, art teacher Sherri Hudson had to carry supplies back and forth from her van to her small classroom. Pam Wolfe was a sort of modern-day troubadour, taking her music lessons from room to room. Now both have plenty of space-to hang finished art projects ranging from African masks to Monet water lilies, and to display a piano, recorders, drums, and other musical instruments.

"The students are a lot more focused now that they have such a good environment for this kind of work," Hudson says. "Last year, I had to do the same project with every grade level because I didn't have the space and supplies to vary projects. This year every grade is doing a different project appropriate for their level."

Focusing on Kids

Students are also enjoying new after-school activities. School programs funded by a recent federal 21st Century Learning Grant now give students three extra hours of activities after school four days a week. "Initially, these programs were designed for latchkey kids, but they also give us an opportunity to help kids we've determined are not achieving up to par, and encourage them to participate in tutoring programs," Belcher adds. "And it gives us an outlet for those kids who don't have a lot of recreational opportunities outside of school to play basketball and football and other sports."

A number of special education programs, including speech therapy, hearing instruction, and help for children with special learning needs, continue in the new elementary school. In addition, the Clinch-Powell Educational Cooperative, formed by the five school districts in northeastern Tennessee, provides Hancock County Elementary School with programs such as C-HOSTS (Communities Helping Our Students to Succeed), which provides preventive and counseling services to students and ensures a safe learning environment. Another Clinch-Powell program at the school, known as BUGS (Bringing Up Grades), is a tutoring program designed for fifth and sixth graders. And the federal program DEAR-Drop Everything and Read-is a new program for second, third, and fourth graders.

Making a Difference

These programs, both new and established, are making a difference. While Belcher admits it's too early to gauge any improvements in performance because of the new environment, he's optimistic. "I believe that's going to happen. We have expectations of good things. We've been on an upward track of increasing scores, and things are going really well," he adds.

While Hancock County Elementary School was under construction, the grounds surrounding the old school were torn up. Playgrounds were closed, and the noise and dust bordered on unbearable. But everyone agrees the payoff has been worth it. Teachers say they can sense students know how determined the community is about their welfare. Sure, they already knew they were cared for, like when Ms. Janet was hammering away at those marble shower stalls, but they now enjoy opportunities to explore and learn like never before. There's a spirit that runs throughout the school, down the wide hallways and into each classroom. In Clonce's room, that spirit is captured in more than 100 smiley faces in every imaginable form-from stuffed critters to the familiar two-dimensional yellow-and-black orb-and in the promise she makes to all the students at the school.

"This is the happy room," she tells them. "If you come in sad, hopefully you'll go out happier than when you came in. And if you get lost, just look for the smile and know that I'll help you find your way."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.