Area agency assists schools
Stephanie Myers
Although the nonprofit has worked behind the scenes for more than 40 years, Lenoir City, Loudon County and surrounding school officials say they couldn’t provide their best educational experience to students without the assistance of the Little Tennessee Valley Educational Cooperative.

The organization partners with area rural schools to provide educational services that those schools might not otherwise have due to budget constraints.

The cooperative provides mostly special education needs, but Executive Director Roger Jones said services are adaptive for today’s student needs.

Jones said eight school districts are currently in partnership with the cooperative, including Lenoir City, Loudon, Blount and Monroe county and Sweetwater schools.

“What we’re doing is we’re trying to make these school systems successful. ... We should be able to sit back and smile seeing these people celebrate. That’s what we’re all trying to do,” Jones said.

A working ‘model’

The cooperative works by employing staff, such as in speech therapy, physical therapy or in the assistive technology center program, and area schools utilize those staff members on a need-by-need basis, freeing up school budgets.

“Again a lot of systems didn’t have a need for a full-time person, but they have a need for part time,” Jones said, adding that he believes the cooperative’s approach is a win-win all around. On the flip side, it gives that staff member a full-time position that would have otherwise been part time for most individual districts.

Commonly used initiatives in Lenoir City and Loudon County schools include physical and occupational therapy programs and the assistive technology program, which uses technology to assist students with special needs.

“At the same time it gives a way for some of our teachers to feed into some professional development as well because sometimes I know that the assistive technology and special ed area LTVEC will employ some of our teachers to provide professional development for other people in the area, so it is a give and take,” Lenoir City Schools Superintendent Jeanne Barker said. “It’s a collaboration, and I think it’s a model for how we want our schools to operate.”

While the cooperative receives some state funding and local funding through United Way and grants, schools share costs of some programs based on their need, Jones said.

Melanie Miller, Sweetwater City Schools Superintendent and LTVEC chairwoman, said the cooperative has helped in countless ways.

“Sweetwater City (Schools) is a small pre-K through eighth city system, so we have 1,500 students, much less than Loudon County or Monroe County,” Miller said. “So, I do struggle sometimes with finding employees. For instance, LTVEC is helping me to do a search for an occupational therapist assistant. See, with a small system I just really need one for about 90 days during the year, and it is hard to find someone who wants to work 90 days.

“... It’s kind of like having a plate here of different entrees and sometimes you need more of something than others, and sometimes you only need a little and sometimes you need a lot,” she added. “The ability to pick and choose, and we hope LTVEC continues to expand so that as we have needs we can pick and choose what will help our students and our system. It changes yearly those needs.”

“I think that’s the key is we are working collaboratively,” Barker said. “We know that our dollars are limited, but together we can pool some of those resources, and the LTVEC gives us an opportunity to do that and at the same time get high quality personnel for our districts,” Barker said.

Psychology services

Started in 1970, LTVEC initially offered psychologist services.

“It was a way to share psychologists because systems couldn’t afford to hire one by themselves back at that time,” Jones said. “In 1970, there were 10 other cooperatives but all of those are gone now or have changed so much. None of them do what we do, have a wide variety.”

The cooperative continues those services but has branched out to include physical and occupational therapy services, professional development, which provides training in areas requested by educators, and the Birth-to-Three program. The Birth-to-Three program provides early intervention services to infants and toddlers and education and support to their families. The cooperative currently has one center in Blount County for the Birth-to-Three program, but the program is offered to surrounding counties in an at-home basis. Jones said he hopes to build a center in each county where a school district is served.

“Your success in the future is built in that first three years of your life,” Jones said. “The skills that you can learn in that Birth-to-Three are the skills that will build the paying attention (skills) to being able to stay focused — you know those kinds of things, the eye-hand coordination. If you have all of those with you when you step into public schools ... you can be successful.”

New to the cooperative, Jones hopes to expand its services not only for local schools but even families in need of support.

“I hope to have some family kind of things where we have people who come in to learn how to be a mom or a dad or how to do a budget for a home,” Jones said, adding that he believes the home environment is the foundation for education.

Collaborative support

The cooperative board is made up of area school directors, school board members and county commissioners, including Barker, Loudon County Director of Schools Jason Vance, Loudon County Commissioner Harold Duff and Loudon County Schools board member Gary Ubben. The board currently meets once a month in Loudon to discuss the evolution of education, especially in a time when teaching methods and testing models are rapidly changing.

“It’s a real first-hand knowledge of their needs, and they really get to see how the needs are common across the whole service area,” Jones said of the benefit of having area leaders make up the board.

But while area school directors say the system to employ programs on a need-by-need basis is beneficial, the cooperative strives for collaboration across districts. For example, if a math teacher has a successful teaching method, that teacher could network with teachers outside of their district in an effort to move education forward not only in the region but across the state.

“We’re all competitive by nature,” Miller said. “We’re guilty of that. We all are, but we have to put that aside if we’re going to be leaders of great school systems and that translates into leaders in our society then I need to be as concerned of that child at Lenoir City kindergarten or Loudon Elementary kindergarten or Coker Creek Elementary in the mountains or Sweetwater,” Miller said. “Really and truly I want what’s best for kids, and that translates into the future of our society then that every individual child is very important and I should be concerned about it. You know, that 12th-grader who comes out of Loudon County might end up being a teacher for me at Sweetwater Elementary.”

Vance said he is “excited” for the future of LTVEC opportunities.

“We’ve talked before about having autism specialists,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more kids who have autism spectrum come into our school systems today than we’ve ever had in the past. So we’re excited about some of the potential opportunities we’ll have in the future.”

“We are building for a future,” Miller said. “... If we are producing students who are college or career ready then that makes the county stronger. That brings more industry in. That brings more business in, and then we have students who can fulfill those jobs. ... The whole community is winning. It’s very cliche. It takes a community or it takes a village to raise a child, but that’s the approach of LTVEC.”