Looking in on a community school Christenberry is thriving

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Working at Christenberry Elementary School is like coming home to Tiffany Davidson, site resource coordinator for the Great Schools Partnership’s Community Schools Initiative. She’s a proud graduate of Fulton High School, where she was a cheerleader. She has fond memories of her team winning a state football championship her senior year.

“I’m a Falcon,” she said, flashing a broad, infectious smile. “I graduated from Fulton in ’04, so this is my community and I’m really blessed to be back, just down the hill from where I spent my high school years.”

Christenberry is an ethnically diverse school in ethnically diverse Oakwood Lincoln Park and has 70 students for whom English is a second language as well as a large contingent of students who are eligible to receive free and reduced-price lunches. The faculty and staff are bullish about their school, proudly sporting “Straight out of the Berry” T-shirts on special occasions. After-school activities kick off this week.

“Four years ago, we had two teachers helping – we had a dance club and a book club, and that was it. We still have them, but now we have 25 clubs, and I think our teachers are really grasping the concept of community schools,” Davidson said.

The after-school offerings at Christenberry are as diverse as the school population. There’s the Mad Scientist Club, the Book Club, the Jazz Appreciation Club, the Track Club, the Art Club – all supported by a 21st Century state grant.

Davidson defines community schools as an access point where parents can find services and resources for their children – a community hub.

Christenberry has a full-time case manager from the Helen Ross McNabb Center to provide mental-health counseling. And thanks to a grant from the Elgin Foundation (secured by Knox County Schools Social Work supervisor Heather Willis), Christenberry students get dental screenings. Those who need treatment are bused to Edenfeld Dental Group in Fountain City.

Her smile faded when she started talking about a little boy who’d smile and wave at her in the hallway, never hinting at the pain he was enduring. She said the partnership with Elgin has shed light on a health-care epidemic that affects schools daily.

“I don’t think I realized how strong these children are. Sitting in class all day with abscessed teeth?”

She teared up and reached for a Kleenex.

“This little boy’s smile never changed, and we just didn’t know. He never said anything. He was one of those kids who desperately needed to go to the dentist, and when he did, they said, ‘How is this child even functioning?’

“Kids are dealing with it silently. The dental piece is another part of the community schools initiative, and without this partnership, we wouldn’t be able to recognize it and treat it,” she said. “I guess this is why I do my job.”

Christenberry is one of 14 community schools in Knox County. Twelve are run by the Great Schools Partnership, two by the University of Tennessee (Inskip and Pond Gap).

Twelve are elementary schools: Beaumont Magnet, Christenberry, Dogwood, Green Magnet, Inskip, Lonsdale, New Hopewell, Norwood, Pond Gap, Sarah Moore Greene Magnet, South Knoxville and West View. Two are middle schools: Northwest and Vine Magnet. Great Schools Partnership coordinates with more than 150 partner organizations, neighborhoods and key leaders to improve community health and quality of life. Willis applies for and manages the grants that support the initiative, which served 6,322 students last year.

Christenberry’s community school will get cranked up this week, so Davidson doesn’t have the exact enrollment yet, but it has grown every year. Last year, 160 of Christenberry’s 621 students stayed after school from 2:45 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Kindergartners are not eligible since they don’t stay in school a full day.

Davidson said she’d welcome visitors, including elected officials and interested neighbors, to come visit.

“Come see what’s going on! I want people to come in and see what we are moving toward, in terms of the future of Knox County Schools.”

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