When Ashley Griffin’s academic career hit a rough patch, she enrolled at the Dr. Paul L. Kelley Volunteer Academy, a school for Knox County students who have fallen behind on their coursework.
Griffin said she learned life skills that helped her stay out of trouble and got a helping hand from teachers who made sure she didn’t fail. Last week, those efforts paid off as Griffin graduated from the Kelley Academy, along with more than 30 classmates.
“None of the teachers gave up,” Griffin said. “They might have been frustrated a little bit, but they really pushed me, and that is the only reason … I can graduate. Because without their help and the support of my family, I wouldn’t have graduated. I would be a dropout.”
On Tuesday, Dec. 18, the Academy celebrated several milestones. Besides a graduation ceremony in the evening, school officials and local dignitaries in the afternoon held a ribbon-cutting for the Academy’s new facility at Lincoln Park Center, on Chickamauga Avenue.
The Academy was previously located in space at Knoxville Center Mall, but the move was made possible with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Simon Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization that receives financial support from Indianapolis-based real estate company Simon Property Group. SYF works with public school districts to support youth academies for students who are at risk of dropping out of school.
In addition, SYF recently recognized Kelley Academy Principal Janice Cook as its Administrator of the Year, while teacher Jannice Clark was a nominee for the group’s Teacher of the Year award.
In an interview, SYF President and CEO Michael Durnil said Cook stands out for her innovation, caring and thoughtfulness.
“Her colleagues and her teaching staff really appreciate that she can work with them and provide leadership, as well as work with the district and advocate for them,” he said.
The Kelley Academy is named for the late Paul Kelley, a former teacher and principal who served three terms on the Knox County School Board. His widow, Norma Kelley, was on hand at the Dec. 18 ceremony.
Knox Schools superintendent Bob Thomas said the Kelley Academy meets the three priorities set by the district: increasing student achievement, creating a positive culture and eliminating disparities. He also recognized Norma Kelley, herself a former librarian at Whittle Springs Middle School, and said her late husband “was truly an advocate for students.”
Jennifer Owen, a member of the Knox County Board of Education, said that during her first visit to the Kelley Academy, Cook brought her to a math classroom to see instruction taking place. “It was immediate and obvious that there was so much teaching and learning going on,” Owen said. “That’s exactly what we need.”
SYF isn’t the only organization to give the school a financial boost. On Dec. 18, TVA Employees Credit Union also provided a $1,500 grant to support the Academy’s work.
Cook, the Kelley Academy’s principal, said the ribbon-cutting was a good opportunity to remember the school’s mission of rekindling hope in students who didn’t believe they could graduate.
“Our purpose is to reach every student where they are and provide them with what they need to get them to go where they want to go,” she said.
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.