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The Blackman Experience

November 8, 2016

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools

The students at Blackman High School like to win and — as with most any teenager — they certainly like to have fun, but the conversations at school are about academics.

And those discussions begin most mornings in the library.

The room is bustling with students 45 minutes before the first bell and oftentimes it’s at capacity — there are 115 chairs in the library – by 8 a.m. The study carrels in the back corner, one of the places where it remains quiet, are filled within the first five minutes the library is open.

But this isn’t the library it was as recently as five years ago.

It can be pretty fast-paced and the energy is quite frenetic. And, yes, it’s even noisy.

“There’s almost this droning of wonderful noise going on with discussion and people working on math,” said librarian Brian Seadorf, who works alongside fellow librarian Misti Jenkins.

“There’s always people working on math. There’s a puzzle table. That’s a big one. We go through several puzzles a year, where they will come in and sit down and just work on puzzles together. That’s sometimes how kids get their morning going.”

Rahem is there with his friends every day.

So too is Juliette, Tyler and Austin.

Seadorf joked that it’s almost as if some of the regular students have assigned areas.

And there’s Addison.

He wasn’t always as social as he’s become since he started offering to help shelve books in the morning, which frees up Seadorf and Jenkins — who is the president-elect for the Tennessee Association of School Librarians — to work with kids.

“You need to know these librarians,” said Dr. Leisa Justus, who is in her third school year as principal of Blackman High School. “They’re young and they’re exciting and they do a lot for these kids. They have students’ trust.

“You just want a safe place to learn. Where (students) feel safe to take chances and ask questions.”

For many students that place – at least from 7:45 until 8:28 a.m. and again at lunch and in the afternoon – is a modern, lively library that is at once active and focused.

“Sometimes we call it a beehive,” Seadorf said.

Even if the questions are not class-related, Seadorf and Jenkins will help students to find the answers. It wasn’t always like that at Blackman, and Seadorf said it definitely wasn’t like that at his previous schools.

Students and teachers alike have all benefited from the continued efforts of both Seadorf and Jenkins to change the culture.

Seadorf agreed.

“Yeah,” he said, “word gets around.” 

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Blackman was first opened in the fall of 2000 and then received an addition in 2007.

The sought-after school is west of Interstate 24 and north of Highway 96 in a recently developed neighborhood that, by and large, is even newer than the third newest high school in Rutherford County.

Today the school offers 21 Advanced Placement courses, nine dual enrollment courses and next year they plan to add four more, including Spanish and Japanese language courses.

“I would put our course offerings up against anybody in the nation,” Justus confidently said.

She’s responsible for spearheading the development of The Collegiate Academy at Blackman High School.

The idea for the academy came after looking through data. Yes, Blackman had always achieved well and, according to Justus, their ACT scores were higher than the state and national averages.

However, Justus noticed that “growth scores” among the school’s highest achieving students had flattened, and so she did the one thing she often does. She asked questions. Justus is never afraid to ask questions.

More importantly, she’s not afraid of the answers.

Justus sat with 35 teachers and asked them, “What does Blackman High School do well?” She also asked, “What could make us better?”

As for what Blackman did well, her newly-appointed leadership group mentioned Advanced Placement classes and valuable real-life experiences — students at Blackman manage everything from a café and coffee shop to a greenhouse, bank, school store and print shop – along with the culture and traditions started by the school’s first principal, Dr. Gary Nixon.

Nixon later became the head of the Tennessee State Board of Education before retiring.

As for what would make Blackman better, Justus said the team she assembled talked about independent research and dual enrollment, as well as encouraging extracurricular participation.

Justus had previously developed an honors academy and implemented the International Baccalaureate program at schools in Shelby County before coming to Blackman. She brought elements of both in an effort to create a new innovative program she called The Collegiate Academy.

The idea was to create a challenging learning environment with a rigorous course of study.

In addition to being well-rounded scholars, those students admitted to The Collegiate Academy would also fulfill their potential in artistic and social settings for what the school describes as the “total development of each student.”

Students are expected to earn a combination of 12 honors, Advanced Placement and dual enrollment credits in addition to choosing a major and fulfilling a life experience requirement.

“They could come here and have a really rigorous academic experience,” Justus said, “like they might get at a magnet school or like they might get at IB or like they might get if they drove down the road to a private school, they could have that right here and have everything else that a large high school offers and get that big high school experience. Here we call it the Blackman experience.”

Those graduating from The Collegiate Academy would also be in a position to meet the state honors designation among other distinctions.

“They’ve got a ticket to do whatever they want to do,” Justus added.

The Collegiate Academy concludes with a senior capstone project.

“I’m really proud of these kids,” said Kim Baumann, who in addition to chairing the Chemistry Department, teaches AP chemistry, advanced honors chemistry and is a faculty advisor for the senior capstones.

Last year, one particular student participated in a 20-hour internship with an actuary — a business professional who analyzes the financial consequences of risk — that led to a professional mentorship. She then researched safe teen driving and made a presentation to her peers during Safe Driving Week.

The local actuary she shadowed has since offered the former Blackman student a job once she graduates from college.

Another student made a 3D model of the school with solar panels and presented financial comparisons to the School Board regarding the potential savings of using solar power.

“It was pretty impressive,” said Baumann, who added, “We challenge them.”

Baumann credits not only Blackman’s achievements, but the expectations to compete academically with magnet and private schools and athletically with any public school in the state, to the hiring of Justus in the summer of 2014.

Baumann specifically noted the vision Justus brought with her.

“Any good company has a visionary at the top,” Baumann said. “It’s seeing the big picture.

“She can make difficult decisions that other people might not be able to make without being emotional about it. … I like working for her. She lets you do your thing, but she’s honest with you if you’re not. She’s a big believer in the school and a big supporter of students.”

Justus won over her staff before the first school year even began.

Shortly after being hired, she set up 15-minute meetings with every teacher and staff member at Blackman. From department heads to custodians, she asked everyone the same three questions.

What’s important to you in the school?

What makes Blackman High School great?

What can make us better?

“It was the best thing I ever did,” said Justus, who gained invaluable insight as she heard everyone talk about love and respect, collaboration and community, respect, support, mentoring, great students, common ground, teamwork and diversity.

The Blackman student body is made up of students from 28 different countries — all of which will be on display at the upcoming cultural fair the school is hosting this month.

The staff learned firsthand she cares about them.

In turn, Justus learned just how willing her staff is to work for their students.

“I’ve had great teachers,” said senior Kayla Reed. “It’s more than just how they keep your attention in class. It’s they show you how much they really do care about you.”

Justus is also a believer in requiring teachers to visit another teacher’s class at least once every nine weeks during what they refer to as Tech Tuesdays and then debrief with that particular teacher afterward.

In addition to Baumann, who Reed said is willing to come in and work with students every weekend, other teachers mentioned by students and fellow instructors include Joy Wilson, Justin Smith, Regina Wright and John McCreery, who is also an assistant football coach for the Blaze.

“We need the collective intelligence of all the professionals in this building. We need to lean on each other and help each other professionally.”

It’s all part of never being satisfied.

Baumann said Justus is not OK with the status quo.

“I want to be a destination school,” Justus added.

Justus recently studied the book Switch, which was written by Chip and Dan Heath, with her administrative team and then presented it to her faculty in August. Chip is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, while his brother Dan is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center.

Switch, along with Good to Great, is about learning how to leverage what you’re already great at doing. As Justus explained, it’s about identifying positives and starting with those “bright spots,” which is exactly how she created The Collegiate Academy at Blackman High School.

Blackman is also home to an HOSA program of study that combines equally strong career and technical programs with strong academic programs.

Film and video is another stellar CTE program at Blackman in which McCreery has guided his students through various video projects under the banner of BSPN.

McCreery’s program is just a snapshot of the variety offered at Blackman, which has more than 60 clubs ranging from swing dancing to Frisbee to service clubs.

Last year, Madison Childers received the national Prudential Spirit of Community Award. The school is well-represented in the community through organizations like DECA, Key Club and the National Honor Society.

Last weekend, DECA held a Fall Festival on Saturday afternoon to raise money for Candle Wishes — a local charitable organization that provides birthday parties and presents for children in need throughout the Murfreesboro community.

DECA has volunteered to work the upcoming Blaze Buddies Fashion Bash being organized by the event planning class.

Ryan Pierce, a senior and DECA president, said the object is for Blackman to be viewed as a pillar in the community.

“The student council did a blood drive last week,” Pierce said. “The track and field team and other sports teams do a lot of different things in the community. It’s important to get out in the community and help other people.”

There are almost 200 students in the school band, which has decided not to compete and instead is focused on entertaining crowds at Blackman football games and other events, and there are also more 200 students participating in the JROTC program.

In addition to leadership skills, JROTC students are developing pride and discipline. They also organize peer meetings and tutoring sessions among themselves.

Blackman has also excelled athletically.

The girls basketball team won back-to-back state titles in 2013-14 and again in 2014-15, while four wrestlers — Tyler Garrison (2014-15), Eric Feuerbacher (2010-11), Michael Kennedy (2009-10) and Kenny Meredith (2004-05) — have won individual state titles along with 110 meter hurdler Jack Porter in 2007-08.

Four athletes have been named the Gatorade Player of the Year, including David Price, who went on to play baseball at Vanderbilt University before becoming the No. 1 overall selection in the MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007.

Price, who currently pitches for the Boston Red Sox, is still active in the community — largely through his www.project14.orgcharity, which is overseen by his parents.

At Blackman, the conversations eventually turn back to academics. Always.

“Kids are starved for success,” Baumann said. “They want to do well.”

“I feel we have every opportunity a school our size could offer,” Reed said, “but … that tight-knit feeling of a private school, I feel like we have that here.”

Pierce added, “Like Kayla said, there’s definitely a close-knit family type of atmosphere around here.”

Reed concluded, “Everyone here has chosen to have a vested interest in our school and that’s what really makes the culture and the attitude and the atmosphere. … You can feel that when you walk in the door each morning.”

PHOTOS / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT 

(TOP) DECA president and senior Ryan Pierce welcomes visitors to the Fall Festival at Blackman High School. (MIDDLE) Senior Kayla Reed and librarian Misti Jenkins talk during first period. (BOTTOM) Misti Jenkins helps students check out books from the Blackman High School library.