The first thing you notice when principal Shelly McGill walks down the halls of Pond Gap Elementary is how happy everyone is to see her. Taking a visitor on a tour from the old wing of the school to the new one, she stops to praise children lining up in the freshly painted hallway and passes smiles along to the teachers standing with them.
McGill is in her fourth year as principal of the K-5 school. She’s solidified relationships between the school and the community while also overseeing an expansion that will double the square footage of the school, which was built in 1954.
The first new wing opened last Christmas, and McGill and her staff moved 19 classrooms, figuring out how best to allocate space for the school’s 340-plus students. When complete, around November of this year, there will be a new gym, a music room, an art room, a media center, a guidance room, two special education classrooms and a new administration center. The school will also move its official address from Hollywood Road to a brand-new entrance on Papermill Drive.
Pond Gap was the University of Tennessee’s first University Assisted Community School, a designation it now shares with Inskip Elementary. UT faculty and students help organize afterschool programs for students and families. This includes academic enrichment in addition to several clubs. There is a cooking club, a garden club, a French club, a science club, art and music instruction, and much more. There’s also a tennis team and a cross-country team.
The Pond Gap community, which includes residential and industrial spaces, has been historically underserved. The Knoxville Dream Center Food Truck comes to school grounds weekly with groceries for the community, which is a USDA-designated “food desert.” Produce from the school’s large community-tended garden is available through the food truck. A Job Truck offers adults help with resume writing and job applications. There have also been English as a Second Language classes for adults as well as GED classes, and McGill hopes to get those started up again.
The playground, which opened for the 2016 school year, is the closest thing Pond Gap has to a park and is often filled after hours and during school holidays with neighborhood families. It was completed with the support of the school’s PTA and the Rotary Club of Bearden. Previously the school had a lone swing set.
“We try to get all the resources we can to the families, so they can focus on their child’s education,” McGill says. “We have a lot of need, but we also have an incredible amount of support, including so much trust and support from the parents.”
McGill grew up in the Gibbs community and wasn’t sure she wanted to be a teacher until after she had spent a couple of years at UT. She taught at several schools before making the change to becoming an administrator.
“I left the classroom kicking and screaming,” she says. “But this is the perfect place for me. It’s the most rewarding job.”