BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – In a letter and voicemail to parents this week, the principal of Sullivan County’s only science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) school confirmed the academy would close. Parents were given until July 1 to enroll their kids elsewhere.
For months, rumors of a potential closure made their way through the halls of Innovation Academy (AI), which is housed in the Sullivan Central Middle School building.
“At first it started as a rumor and it really wasn’t even confirmed during the actual school year,” said Amber Kidd, a parent of an AI student. “So everybody was just kind of in limbo and also panicking a little bit wondering exactly what’s going on.”
On June 20, Innovation Academy Principal Jonathon Fields sent an email, coupled with a voicemail to parents confirming the school closure, along with steps parents will need to take before the start of the upcoming academic year.
Sullivan County Board of Education Chairman Randall Jones told News Channel 11 that the decision to close the school was “strictly a budget decision,” because the county lost over $1 million in Basic Education Program (BEP) funding.
“In order to give the county commission a balanced budget, we had to make cuts and the Innovation Academy was one of those cuts,” Jones said.
The school system’s budget also cut several bus routes including two that served students of the IA.
“I’m not 100% sure why the bus routes at Sullivan central weren’t utilized for Innovation Academy students as well. I would think that the students can intermingle into those just as they do. The cafeteria there the arts programs there,” said Heather Imburgia, parent of 12-year-old Declan.
“It’s such an amazing program for our children that we would either provide our own transportation carpool, we would figure it out,” she said.
At the previous school board meetings, the issue had not been placed on the agenda, though former and current students, as well as parents, spoke up – based on rumors.
Verona Mitchell, 13, was one of the IA students who spoke at the board of education meeting.
“It was a place where I could feel comfortable even with my social anxiety and depression, and I didn’t have to worry about being bullied. Everyone there was on equal footing, and you were able to fully be yourself without discrimination. Of course, the people outside of IA would constantly make fun of us for being different and “nerds”, but we would be able to stand our ground by being with our friends. The teachers and students were so tightly knit that it was hard to break us down. Even now, we are fighting for our school,” Mitchell wrote in a statement to News Channel 11.
She wrote that she and her peers hold each other and their teachers in high regard and have grown accustomed to the fast-paced, high-technology, hands-on classrooms IA offered.
“I am very disappointed in the way that Sullivan County handled their money situation. First of all, they poured all of their money into a school that we didn’t really need, and they didn’t even stay in the budget. To resolve the money problem, they decided to just keep it a secret that IA was closed. When the word and rumors got out, they decided to lie to all of Sullivan County and say that IA was not on the agenda. In the next board meeting, they snuck it in. They didn’t even try to do a fundraiser or make money. When I talked to them at the last Board Meeting and they seemed to ignore everything that I said, it was obvious that they seemed to really not care what the students in the school system think,” Mitchell added.
She said she plans to attend the next board meeting to raise her concerns again.
IA offers students a more hands-on learning approach, and parents told News Channel 11 that many of the students had trouble learning in a general education environment while thriving in the specialized environment.
“As far as the classroom goes, it’s a very nontraditional type of classroom where most of the learning is done through projects, hands-on group projects, individual projects, they learn how to work with other students. They use a tremendous amount of technology, and it’s really great for those kids that aren’t super successful at sitting still in a chair reading just strictly from a book. It really gives them a lot more interaction capabilities. And it’s been a really amazing program for him,” Imburgia said of her son.
Uncertainty about how the move will impact their kids, parents spoke out.
“She’s really scared of not knowing what’s going to happen. We still have to make a decision on what school we’re going to send her to, or if we’re going to maybe possibly do the online school from home that you can do through the state,” Kidd said.
IA had some of the best testing scores in the district.
“Because they’re not in the learning environment that really works well for them. Maybe they’ll end up being a distraction, and they’ll actually their scores will falter,” Imburgia said.
This is not the first time the school’s future has been called into question.
In 2018, Kidd’s oldest child was a student at IA. She said parents were given the opportunity to fight against the closure, unlike this time around.
“There wasn’t like a meeting where parents were able to come in like that and, saying ‘please, don’t close’ because we had – at that point in time – we had that opportunity to explain why the school was so important. And, practically begging ‘please, don’t close it. Please, don’t close it.’ And you know, at that point in time it worked. But we haven’t really had the opportunity to do that this year,” she said.
This time, Imburgia started a petition in hopes to dissuade the county system from closing down their beloved school.
“We could have applied for grants, we could have appealed to some of the corporations that we have here in Kingsport, and whether or not they would have been able to help I don’t know because those corporations won’t engage if a publicly elected official has already made a vote so we were already behind. So had they given us a little bit of a notice. We could have actively applied for some sort of funding outside of just what the school board has as a budget and I really think we would have been successful,” she said.
Parents told News Channel 11 they have asked local businesses and industry to consider investing in the program to reverse the school closure. Jones said the school system would have to contact the state to see if grants or external funding are legal or even possible.
No plans have been discussed regarding external funding. The IA is closed for good.