December 6, 2016
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
Rudy Vazquez never forgot the snickers.
He still remembers being told the other schools at a SkillsUSA competition for criminal justice clubs weren’t taking LaVergne High School seriously.
Vazquez is president of the club at LaVergne and, in 2015, the school was competing for the first time in years. They didn’t win the overall competition or any individual areas of competition, but they surprised a few people with a handful of second and third place finishes.
That was nothing compared to the shock last month.
With only seven days to prepare for this year’s SkillsUSA competition, they won the overall event hosted by Spring Hill High School.
LaVergne beat out eight other schools as well as earning first in trivia and unknown response; second in felony stop and domestic responses; and third in fingerprinting and appellate court argument.
“Our second year and we only had seven days to prepare and we won it overall,” said Vazquez, who felt like LaVergne still wasn’t being taken seriously. “That was great. Other schools had months to prepare and they didn’t win.”
He again stressed, “Just add that we had seven days to prepare. That’s the most important line in the whole competition. Only seven days and they had months to practice, and they lost.”
Oscar Porto, Jamin Whittemore, Kaiss Mrayan, James Chaiping, Deja Warren, Yael Ocasio, Christina Phouangchanh, Tim Harris, Nayla Menbrano, Sarah Stansbury, Grace Curtis, Tamara Yarbrough, Estefania Mondragon, Destiny Parks and Seth Stallcup teamed with Vazquez, a senior, for the competition.
A relatively new club offered at LaVergne that also includes a mock trial club, the criminal justice club is advised by Nicolette Dowling and Jett Whitmer.
“When we were sitting there and they were announcing all the winners,” Dowling said, “and we kept winning, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. We might win this whole competition.’”
There are 50 students who are members of the criminal justice club with 20 of them also making up the mock trial club.
In addition to the occasional competition, Dowling also arranges field trips through the year to places like the juvenile courthouse, Rutherford County courthouse, police department, bail bondsman and criminal justice day at Middle Tennessee State University.
“My biggest thing is I want them to get hands on,” Dowling said. “They hear about stuff in the field, but they don’t actually get to see it. I feel like if they get to see what it is, it could encourage them to do what it is they’re thinking about doing.”
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A lot has changed since LaVergne High School opened in 1988.
First and foremost, the City of LaVergne grew by more than 16,000 residents in a 10-year period from 2000 to 2010 when the population was listed at 32,588, according to the most recent census numbers.
It pushed up over 34,000 in 2013.
Likewise, the student body has expanded and recently topped 1,800.
“Our population is very transient,” said first-year assistant principal Kyle Nix, noting the families who have moved in and out of the area based on jobs with large employers like Nissan, Bridgestone and Amazon, “and when (students) are (in school) they need to be loved and welcomed.”
That’s a cultural change that had bled from the top down after current principal Dirk Ash arrived seven years ago.
To really know Ash, it’s important to know he grew up poor with a rough upbringing that led him and his brother, Tennessee Senior Judge Don Ash, to attending Castle Heights Military Academy in nearby Lebanon.
At the time, Dirk hated the high school experience.
However, over the years, it proved invaluable.
He learned discipline and he learned how to be a leader. Ash employed those attributes as a longtime high school coach and later as a college basketball coach at Cumberland University before pursuing a career in administration.
He’s 16 years removed from his last coaching stint.
“But that’s what I was and what I really am,” said Ash. “In reality, that’s what I am.”
He calls it a “gift or curse” of motivation.
Whatever it is, Ash demands a lot of his staff and faculty — rightfully so — and as a result they’ve gotten more out of LaVergne students (and faculty for that matter) than any other administration in the nearly 30-year history of the school.
A year before Ash arrived, graduation rates at LaVergne High School barely topped 77 percent.
The most recent figures show the school with a 91.78% graduation rate.
“I can motivate people,” said Ash, who credited the School Board, Rutherford County Commission and school district for investing $100,000 to clean up and repair the school when he first arrived. “Whatever our vision is, I have a plan and a system … but I can only do so much. It has to bleed down.”
Seven of his assistant principals have been hired by Rutherford County Schools as principals and 18 of his deans have gone to become assistant principals.
LaVergne is a suburban city but with close proximity to Metro Nashville. Therefore, in many respects, the high school has often been compared to that of a more urban school.
Ash hasn’t shied away from looking at it as such.
For instance, on half days, most schools hand out approximately 50 sack lunches when students are excused at 11:30 a.m. At LaVergne, they hand out as many as 1,400. They also serve breakfast to about 800 students every morning.
“That’s the highest in the county by far,” Ash said.
He knows those kids.
He relates to those kids.
Although he might have a steely exterior, his kids-first mentality has always been at the heart of his decision-making, even though some of his directives have not always been popular.
Ash hasn’t forgotten the complaints he received from some teachers for policies like “no homework” and “not allowing zeros,” which were met with overwhelming resistance.
Like Vasquez and the criminal justice club (or more likely vice versa), Ash stayed the course and believed in the possibilities of “student success.”
“We tell our teachers, you only have them from 8:30 to 3:30 and you can’t have much expectation out there,” said Ash, pointing outside of the school. “They’re going home to work, care for their brothers and sisters. They’re going home and there’s no parent there because they’re working second or third shift, so we can’t penalize you if you’re here and you work your tail off from 8:30 to 3:30 and you don’t come in with your homework for the next day. We’re not going to kill you for that. We don’t know what that is. We know what you did in front of us and how hard you worked here and that’s what we’re going to grade you on. That was a whole change.”
Times have certainly changed.
Policies like those enacted by Ash have gained popularity with other schools around the nation.
“Our kids — whatever faults they have academically, they make up for with street smarts,” Ash said. “They know people and they know if you really care about them, if you’re really in it for them or if you’re just drawing a paycheck.”
When interviewing potential teachers, Ash is not only looking for candidates with master’s degrees, he will directly ask them: do you want to make a difference in a kid’s life? Do you want to be their hero?
“If you want to,” he replies, “this is where you need to be. They need you.”
It’s why Tarron Huddleston left Central Magnet School for LaVergne.
“I just don’t feel like they need me here,” she told Ash, of the Central students who were the brightest students she’d ever worked with. “They need me (at LaVergne) and I want to be there.”
Robert Willis, who has been a social studies teacher at LaVergne since the school opened, said, “The perception of LaVergne High School has changed to where I think it’s one of the better schools.”
Willis especially noted the academic culture Ash has fostered.
For the past four years, LaVergne has offered its students a dual enrollment opportunity with Motlow State Community College and University of the Cumberlands.
The high school currently offers 10 courses – dual math, English, French, Spanish, music and history – at the school with LaVergne instructors that teach through Cumberlands, while also offering dual psychology and speech through Motlow as well as dual chemistry and biology.
Students earn three college credits per class with the exception of biology and chemistry, which include lab work and result in four credits.
Ash said the program has grown each year and that students recently earned a combined 3,600 credit hours toward college. Dual enrollment is open to junior and seniors. This year they have 290 students enrolled in the program, including senior Brittany Bradbury.
Bradbury is currently enrolled in five dual enrollment courses – calculus, child development and accounting among them – at Motlow this semester.
“It’s definitely a strange environment going from high school to there,” said Bradbury, who admitted some of her college-aged classmates were “freaked out” by having a high school student in the same classroom.
“In my accounting course, my professor decided to point it out. I’ve excelled in that class so she always points it out. They didn’t know what to say either. In my calculus class it actually comes up quite often. They all just think I’m crazy for trying to do that.”
But despite being a high school student, Bradbury said her professors don’t cut her any slack.
Ash used the program as a means of developing academically minded students following the opening of Stewarts Creek High School, which skimmed many of the top LaVergne students when that area of the district was rezoned in 2013.
Ash worked on the program with Tori Ruis — who now is in her first year as principal of Oakland Middle School — at the suggestion of Director of Schools Don Odom.
“It’s worked better than we ever dreamed it could when we started,” said Ash, who admitted many of their students had never prioritized college because no one in their family had gone, and no one, at home, was encouraging them to do so.
“We’re probably unique in the fact that our parents’ goals are not what ours are. We’re here — we hope — to change that attitude, where your success is determined by what you want to do.”
“Our school is college-driven and really post-secondary success driven,” she said. “I don’t know that every school has that. That’s just something that as an administration and faculty that we push.
“We do everything we can to push post-secondary success,” Nix continued, “so it’s really a climate thing and a culture thing.”
LaVergne is one of 30 schools benefiting from Advise TN.
Advise TN is a college advising and capacity building program developed by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Office of Governor Bill Haslam. Driven by the belief that every student has the potential to attend and thrive in post-secondary education, Advise TN aims to increase the number of Tennesseans accessing higher education.
“She’s focused on getting kids into college,” Willis said of the Advise TN counselor working at the school, “where other counselors are busy with class schedules … and you don’t have the time to see every senior.”
College isn’t the only focus.
Longtime career technical education instructor Frank Cathey started the Wolverine computer repair program in 1988. He left for a few years and restarted it when he returned in 2002.
The repair shop is open during and after school.
They request a $50 donation for the work, which helps to augment the certification fees for students. The self-funded business helps computer science students earn their A+ certification, Network+ certification and their Security+ certification, which qualifies them to work for the Department of Defense, before they graduate high school.
“It’s preparing them for something beyond just academics,” Willis said.
It’s a new day and age in LaVergne.
“It’s a place where kids can make their own stories,” said Nix, who added, “It’s a blank canvas and we’re giving them so many different colors to color with.”
“This is their warmth, their shelter, their food bank,” Ash concluded. “It’s everything they have.”
They, of course, are the kids Ash and his entire staff have been fighting for, for the past seven years.
PHOTO / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Pictured from left to right is Criminal Justice Club advisor Nicolette Dowling and club members Nayla Mendrano, Rudy Vazquez and Oscar Porto.