Adrian Burnett Elementary: 40 years of ‘temporary’

Shannon CareyHalls

Almost everyone involved with Adrian Burnett Elementary School, from school board chair Patti Bounds to principal Michelle Wolfenbarger, to faculty, staff and parents, will tell you that the trouble with Adrian Burnett is not the quality of instruction, nor is it the kids.

It’s the building.

Constructed in 1976, the primarily wood and sheet rock structure was intended to be a temporary school. But more than 40 years later it houses an average population of 500 students with 12 portable classrooms, no gymnasium, and classes held in hallways.

Adrian Burnett Elementary principal Michelle Wolfenbarger

“I try my best to see things from a big picture perspective,” said Wolfenbarger. “There are 90 schools and limited funds. But the building is in desperate need of replacing. It’s difficult because the lack of space makes it hard for students to concentrate. We have instruction going on in every nook and cranny.”

“We love it here,” said kindergarten teacher Lauren Cheatham. “We just wish here was nicer.”

Regina Turner has a 15-year history at Adrian Burnett, first as a parent and PTSO board member and now as a substitute teacher.

“This is a sad thing,” she said. “The teachers and staff are fabulous, but they don’t have a building that is as fabulous as them.”

Adrian Burnett parent, volunteer and substitute teacher Regina Turner

That building is rife with issues. Besides basic overcrowding, there are two restrooms with six stalls apiece for each gender, and the wait to use the restroom eats into instruction time. The lack of parking, lack of a gym or any assembly area means school programs have to borrow space from local churches. Field days are held on a small, sloping field at the back of the school.

Turner said skunks and possum sometimes make themselves at home under the portables, and in the main building wasps are a problem because of the wood-and-sheetrock structure and openings to the outside. She said older students are so used to the wasps that they don’t even react anymore.

In the main building, 16 classrooms are built on an open floorplan model, meaning that two classrooms share a door to the hallway and have no door between them. This brings problems with noise and distraction, too. Teachers cite a lack of built-in storage, meaning materials are all stored in open shelves and bookcases and take up valuable real estate in the classroom.

Reading and math intervention classes are held behind these partitions in an open hallway just off the library at Adrian Burnett.

Turner cited more health and safety concerns, saying that mold is a constant problem. She also worries that the building is a fire hazard or that a tornado could level it because “it’s made of sticks and paper.”

Adrian Burnett is located in school board chair Patti Bounds’ District 7, and she said she’s been asking for a new building through three superintendents, ever since she was elected to the board, but despite her best efforts the school has been passed over in favor of two new middle schools and renovation projects at other schools.

“The teachers will tell you that they’ve been promised a new school for so long that they’ve stopped asking,” she said. “Every month when I meet with (Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett), I ask him if he’s found property yet.”

In 2006, Adrian Burnett topped the Knox County Schools capital plan. A new school was proposed to be built on Tazewell Pike, but the property was deemed unbuildable and sold, and a $13 million renovation plan was proposed by former superintendent Jim McIntyre. Bounds said she was reluctant to go with the renovation because it called for a complicated three-year process, building a gym first and putting five classrooms in the gym while the rest of the school was renovated.

An interior view of the reading and math intervention classroom

“As a teacher, I couldn’t wrap my mind around having to teach in a gym with five to six classrooms sharing the space,” she said. “My feeling is that if you can build a middle school for $30-40 million, you can build two elementary schools for the same amount.”

On top of that, Bounds’ district has the highest number of portable classrooms of any Knox County school board district: 12 at Adrian Burnett, 13 at Powell Elementary, and 10 to 12 at Copper Ridge.

“There’s overcrowding at all of those schools, but where do you put it?” she said.

Add to that the changing demographics at Adrian Burnett. As the school has been passed over again and again, many vocal, active families have left, either to private school or moving to other school zones. Turner claims that Adrian Burnett has the highest percentage of low-income students of all the Halls schools, and Wolfenbarger said 20 percent of the students are English Language Learners of Hispanic origin.

“Some of our parents are undocumented, and they are not going to speak up about their kids needing a new school,” Wolfenbarger said.

A view of two open floorplan kindergarten classrooms at Adrian Burnett, standing in one classroom and shot into the second classroom with the door to the hallway behind the photographer. Children from the second classroom must walk through the first classroom to reach the hallway. Also shown is the lack of closed storage space at Adrian Burnett.

“It’s hard not to feel discriminated against,” said Turner. “We’re not so low in income. The inner city beats us to that, but we’re not so very poor that you have people campaigning for us, and I get it. You want to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity. I feel like our dynamic is about the same, though. Because we are in the county and we’re in the Halls area, I think it’s automatically assumed that we’re not low income. We are often forgotten about.”

Bounds said the underlying problem is the school board’s current model of building new schools only in areas with population growth, which means schools in built-out areas get overlooked, even as their infrastructure crumbles.

“This area is not growing like Hardin Valley is, so if you’re only looking at building where the growth is projected to occur, schools are going to get left out,” she said. “Some of the board members have never been here to see it. Some of their decisions are not based on actual experience in the schools. I think school board members and county commissioners should educate themselves about every facility in Knox County Schools.”

She encouraged the community, even people who do not have children or family at Adrian Burnett, to advocate for the school board to address structural issues there.

“I just want the community to know that there is a school that is being ignored and not taken care of like the rest of the schools. This one part of town is being ignored, and these kids deserve just as much as anyone else,” said Turner.

“I just want the best for the kids here,” said Wolfenbarger. “I think it would mean the world to some of our kids to have anything bright and shiny. They deserve it.”

Contact Patti Bounds at or call 865-406-8623.

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