In a way, the Dr. Paul L. Kelley Volunteer Academy’s move into the old Lincoln Park Elementary School building at 535 Chicamauga Ave. was like coming home.
Founded in 2010 by Knox County Schools in partnership with the nonprofit Simon Youth Foundation to assist high school students who are at risk of not graduating, the academy originally was located in the old Knoxville Center Mall, then owned by Simon Property Group. It was named for longtime educator and school board member Dr. Paul L. Kelley, who moved to Knoxville to teach in 1949 and was a champion for underdog kids.
Kelley was a longtime president of the Oakwood Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association, and his wife, Norma, lived a few blocks from the school.
Norma Sawyer Kelley, also an educator and an active member of the neighborhood association, attended the academy’s Dec. 18 ribbon cutting and was present when principal Janice Cook borrowed the Emerald Avenue United Methodist Church kitchen to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for parents.
“Norma Kelley came, and our families got to meet her,” said Cook. “She said that hearing parents and students tell her what a blessing and a life changer it was to come to this school really blessed her. She said her husband was very proud of this school.”
Paul Kelley was born Jan. 13, 1928, in McMinn County, where he grew up and went through high school. He attended Wednesday night prayer meeting at Emerald Avenue the day he arrived in Knoxville by bus from Englewood in 1949. He remained a member there for 63 years, until his death Dec. 16, 2012. He and Norma raised their two sons there.
Kelley earned an associate’s degree from Tennessee Wesleyan College and his bachelor’s from Tennessee Technological University. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and earned his master’s from Northwestern University, which he attended on the G.I. Bill. Much later, while he was serving as a high school principal, he took a year off to complete his doctorate at the University of Tennessee.
Education was important to him, as was looking out for the best interests of children. He was appointed to the Knox County school board in 1991 and served three terms. Before his marriage, he helped found Boy Scout Troop 49 at Emerald Avenue and served as Scoutmaster in the early years and later on. He was a founding supporter of the Emerald Youth Foundation.
Simon Youth Foundation is continuing its partnership with the academy and provided financial support for the move from the mall it used to own. It seemed appropriate to relocate after the mall changed hands.
“We really don’t take rent from competitors, so we had to move out of there,” said Cook, who speaks with a lilt that hints of her native Scotland. She was named 2018 SYF Administrator of the Year.
It’s somewhat complicated to count the number of students served by the academy, since they each have an individualized program designed to meet their needs. Last year, 235 students cycled through, for varying periods of time, depending on the number of credits they needed. There are currently between 80 and 90 students studying there.
The academy shares the building with the Welcome Center, which provides support for non-English-speaking students entering Knox County Schools, as well as with night students taking CTE classes.