Knoxville News Sentinel
May 31, 1999

Published, Monday, May 31, 1999


Section: A SECTION

Page: Al

Illustration: (Color) Taylor Guffey, left, and Tim Lawson enjoy a break from classes at BRICEVILLE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL recently.  Briceville is one of only 88 schools in the nation to be named a Title I Distinguished School. (Color)

Emily Wheeler gets help with her reading from her first-grade teacher, Melissa Martin.  Emily is one of only four pupils in her Small Reading Group at Briceville Elementary.; BRICEVILLE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (Color) Briceville Elementary,- BRICEVILLE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL Photos by Joe HowelI News-Sentinel staff  


BRICEVILLE -- The buzzword around Briceville Elementary School these days is "pride."

You can see it in the hallways, which are spotlessly clean, and you see it in the school's newly landscaped grounds.

But most of all, you see it in the academic achievements of the students that attend this tiny elementary school nestled in the mountains of Anderson County.

Briceville Elementary School -- grades Kindergarten through fifth -- was one of only 88 schools nationwide named recently as a National Title I Distinguished School.

The federal Title I program provides assistance to schools in economically depressed areas.  According to Anderson County Title I director Sally Jackson, Briceville won the award because the school's 140 students have exceeded academic achievement goals for the past three years.

Reading scores increased 31 percent over the past four years, and students' math competency soared by 58 percent between 1993 and 1998.  Jackson credited a combination of "family and community involvement, principal leadership and dedicated and qualified staff' for the improvements.  The school lets out for summer on Thursday.

"No single program or individual gained the success for Briceville Elementary," Jackson said.  "It's been hard work, and very frustrating at times."

Located 3.5 miles southwest of Lake City on state Highway 116, Briceville lies in the heart of Tennessee's coal country.  Waldens Ridge runs directly in front of the school, and Cross Mountain -- once an active strip mining site -- dominates the view from the school's playground.

A small building across the road from Briceville Elementary was once a coal company store.  Other remnants of the coal boom include empty company houses and a cemetery a half-mile from town where the victims of a turn-of-the-century mine explosion are buried in a circle.

Beginning in the late 1970's, as coal mining in the Cumberland Mountains played out, the population of Briceville declined as families left to find work.

Tom Braden, a former student and teacher at Briceville, and now the school's principal, remembers how the community suffered.

"Coal was king, then the prices bottomed out.  It was depressing to see how so many people had to leave.  Nobody was interested in Briceville."

In the fall of 1992, school officials and Title I staff embarked on a series of major overhauls that would not only turn Briceville Elementary into a far more effective learning institution, but also establish it as the town's community center.

For two days, the school's entire staff -- the principal, teachers, even the custodians -- assembled in the cafeteria.  Led by an outside facilitator from the University of Tennessee, they hammered out new goals, identified the barriers for achieving them and decided how these barriers could be overcome.

Briceville's principal at the time, Bruce Lay, began making frequent visits to the classroom to monitor teachers' performance.  Teachers who couldn't meet the new standards didn't last long, and in the meantime new teachers were hired, while the best of the existing staff stayed on.

At the same time, the school's Family Resource Center -- a state-funded program -- began an aggressive campaign to make parents feel part of the school community.  An open house was held, but few parents came.  Notes were sent home to parents through the students, and when that didn't work, the school's staff began making phone calls, even making personal visits.

A Parent Advisory Panel was created to serve as a liaison between the school and the parents in the community.  In 1994, Briceville's Parent Teacher Organization raised enough money to build a new playground.

Today the new playground, with its picnic tables, swing sets and running track, is used not just by Briceville students but by the whole community.

"You can come by here any Sunday and see families eating at the picnic tables," Braden said.  "People here take pride in this place.  You won't see any litter, and nothing gets stolen.  Used to be, you didn't leave anything on the playground because it would be gone."

Today the Briceville Elementary gymnasium has become an after-hours community center for aerobics classes, baton lessons and basketball games.  The school has a new air conditioning system -- "By noon, we used to really sweat," Braden said. -- and there are computers in every classroom.

With money from a technology grant, the school has built a multimedia center next to the library complete with digital camera, scanners, computers, and a large-screen video monitor.

Pre-schoolers and their parents from Briceville and surrounding coal towns such as Petros and Coalfield come to Briceville Elementary once a week for classes on learning development and health.  And thanks to the Family Resource Center, no longer are there walls between the community and the classrooms.

"The staff is excellent, and they expect the students to learn," said Kim Phillips a parent-volunteer whose daughter, Lindsey, attends first grade at Briceville.  "You can tell they care for and love them."

Morgan Simmons can be reached at 423-521-1842

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