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HISTORY IN THE MAKING

April 20, 2017

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools

As the only magnet school in Rutherford County serving both middle and high school, any number of achievements separates Central not only from other high schools in the county but also the state.

Its ACT average of 29.1 is the highest in the state. This year’s girls state champion cross country team averaged 31, while last year’s state champion boys team members earned a collective 32 on their ACT scores.

The school offers 29 advanced placement courses. Every high school student graduates having taken at least four AP courses with most of those students earning in upwards of 10 and sometimes more. And that’s in addition to earning dual enrollment credits.

Those credits afford Central grads two possible options once they’re in college. One, an opportunity to finish in three years, or two, an opportunity to graduate with a double major.

Graduates have gone on to attend universities ranging from Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, NYU, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia Tech and even the Colorado School of Mining, which has a tremendous engineering program. And for the first time ever, a graduate —Alaina Surgener (2017) — was accepted to The Juilliard School.

Each year, Middle Tennessee State University offers 20 Buchanan Fellowships worldwide, and of those, 10 were recently offered to Central grads.

Last year, 192 seniors accounted for nearly $10 million in scholarship money.

It was the highest scholarship total in the state thus giving Central grads the distinction of coming out of college with less student debt than anywhere else in the district, according to Central’s principal Dr. John Ash.

The BETA Club has produced national officers, and the baseball team’s No. 1 pitcher, James Touchton, is also the school’s best pianist and is in the jazz band. The school also sports an antique car club. Emily Oppmann, a tennis player who will graduate in May, wrote the school’s alma mater.

Being highly active is the norm at Central.

“We expect our students to do well in everything they do,” Ash said. “We feel like excellence is a habit. It’s a way of life and we push really hard for our students to excel in everything.

“They are very focused on their goals in life and they’re going to get there,” he continued. “Academic success here is the common thread among students.”

That said, what truly separates Central from other high schools is the one thing you won’t see — locks on their lockers.

Earlier this year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was visiting the school when one of his aids noticed the absence of locks.

“They offer it at the beginning of the year,” said senior Tyler Hogue. “You can buy a lock, but no one really does because it’s a really tight-knit family feel. You just trust everybody and there’s really no need to worry about it.”

It’s not uncommon to see cellphones charging in the hallways, Hogue said.

It’s like being at home.

“It’s a safe environment,” Hogue said. “You don’t have to worry about anything.”

“We just try to make Central a welcoming place for every child,” Ash said. 

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In the early 1900s, Central High School was originally located on North Maple Street until the building, which was first opened in 1919, was destroyed by fire in 1944 and Jim Haynes recalled classes were then held in the old Elks Club building on North Spring Street.

Historical data records show in 1924, Central was one of only five schools out of 500 in the state of Tennessee to be graded A-1 by the state board of education.

That same year, the library contained more than 2,000 volumes, and the school was home to a 15-piece orchestra. In addition, the girls basketball team won the state championship a year after winning the Middle Tennessee Athletic Association title in 1923.

Unfortunately, 20 years later, the building was not salvageable following a late-night fire.

The current building was completed in 1950.

Sixty years later, in 2010, it became Central Magnet School after being closed for one year so the classrooms could be painted and modernized. The school had previously served as a middle school following the opening of Oakland and Riverdale high schools in 1972.

Ash said the building was “extremely well-built” – the walls are 18 inches thick and the ceiling between the first and second floor is poured concrete along with the roof – and should last another 100 years.

“We feel like Central is a very special place to be,” said Ash, who emphasized the importance of remaining connected to its past.

There is a room on the second floor dedicated to the collection of historical documents and other memorabilia. Among the items in their collection includes a black and white photograph of the marching band performing at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration and they also have a 1926 yearbook. Ash has a student handbook that was assigned to Dorris Jernigan, a former Rutherford County School Board member. In it students needed 16 units to graduate, including four units of English, one math, one history, one physical education, one biology and eight electives.

The school’s collection of memorabilia also includes past football uniforms and State Sen. Bill Ketron was recently visiting the school with Gov. Bill Haslam and found a basketball scorebook with his handwriting in it. The boys basketball team won a state title in 1965, while the football team won the title in 1970.

Although Central no longer sports a football program, it’s long been said the 1970 team was arguably the best in the history of Rutherford County.

Current school board members Jeff Jordan and Jim Estes both graduated from Central. Jordan’s letterman sweater is displayed in a shadowbox.

And over the entire history of the school, graduates have gone on to become an astronaut — such as Rhea Seddon — and to work at the White House. For years, Roy Neel worked with former Congressman Al Gore, Jr., before becoming President Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff.

A graduate from the class of 1972 went on to become an architect and eventually oversaw the expansion of the Frist Center in Nashville.

Six months before Central opened as a magnet school, Madison Tracy, a 2013 graduate, reached out to Ash to ask about becoming student body president. She won the election as a sophomore, junior and a senior.

Tracy is now the current president of the Student Government Association at MTSU.

“She might be the president of the United States one day,” Ash said with his big trademark smile in which his head tilts to the side and his eyes close as he laughs.

In addition to a robotics program, which Ash said is easily the best in the state, Central offers one of the top engineering programs of any high school in Tennessee. In fact, they have a 3D printer that allows students to design an air foil one day and then test it in a wind tunnel on another.

They offer a bio-medical program.

The foreign language department offers five languages and it’s commonplace for some students to study as many as three languages. Tyler Hogue took five years of Spanish and another seven AP courses to push himself “to another level” of academic achievement.

“It is challenging,” said Hogue, who was among a group of students who started a recycling program at the school, “but I like it because of it.”

Ash said English is a “tremendous department” as well and “the library is very popular here.”

“We have a great fine arts department here,” continued Ash. “I don’t know what causes what, but kids in music tend to be high achievers. … We have a great fine arts department here and I think that goes hand-in-hand.”

In fact, Ash, who was previously an AP chemistry instructor and still keeps an entire bookcase of instructional books in his office, said half his chemistry students were always in band or choir.

Although Ash has been in various administrative roles since 1999, he has been known to still tutor chemistry students.

Central students are also required to complete 25 hours of community service work every school year as high schoolers. Though many of them complete in upwards of 100 hours, Ash said.

“They find a lot of ways to give back,” said Ash, who namechecked everything from traveling to Central America with doctors and ministries to hosting blood drives to working with Habit for Humanity. “We’re proud of that and we want them to give back.”

Contrary to popular belief, Central excels in sports too.

The girl’s basketball team won the district and had two all-state players two years ago. Two years ago, Claudia Smith was one of eight national finalists for the High School Heisman. The chess team also won a national championship.

Baseball has advanced to the state tournament four years in a row, soccer has been to state three years in a row. The boys and girls cross country teams have each won a state title, while several swimmers have placed at the state level as well.

The high school archery team recently won its second consecutive state title and the middle school team finished second in the state on the heels of back-to-back state titles.

“That’s something a lot of people overlook about Central,” Hogue said. “They think this is a magnet school and that people come here only for academics. That is our main focus, but our sports have really come a long way too.”

Hogue, who will attend Auburn University next fall, is a member of the BETA Club and National Honor Society in addition to playing baseball. And as a junior, he and Alex Abernathy began broadcasting away basketball games on the internet.

Because some of the basketball games are two and three hours away, Hogue said he and Abernathy thought it was a good way for them to help students and teachers follow the team.

“Here it’s OK to be in multiple things,” said Ash, who is proud of the self-motivation Hogue and Abernathy displayed. “Here a kid is able to spread out a little bit and try new things. We have lots of clubs and activities for them.

“If a kid has interest, we want them to expand on it.”

“We all want to be the best at everything and that’s the environment we have created here at Central,” said Matthew Connors, who like Hogue, plays baseball in the springtime.

Central started the BETA Club when Connors was in sixth grade.

As an eighth-grader he ran for a national office and subsequently served as a National Jr. BETA officer as a freshman. Connors gave a speech at the Tennessee state convention in front of 7,000 students and then after winning he traveled to other states – Arkansas and Louisiana among them – where he spoke to crowds ranging from 400 to 12,000 students.

Connors said success at Central is about developing a “good work ethic,” which is what Ash noted when talking about Emma Harris.

Harris, who like Hogue will attend Auburn in the fall, took multiple AP classes in both chemistry and English. In addition to her studies, Harris took up cross country as a sixth-grader.

“She had the drive and determination to go out every afternoon and run multiple miles,” Ash said.

Harris said, “That fight that sports puts in you is helpful academically.”

Every senior is required to complete a thesis. Harris studied how smartphones have affected relationships for her generation. She laughed when asked what she discovered, which is hypocritical disdain for technology yet an unwillingness to give up the connection.

“Academically I feel like I’ve been challenged all these years,” said Harris, who will miss the strong bonds she’s formed with classmates, teachers and administrators. “With every challenge I’ve encountered along the way, I’ve always felt there were people here who wanted to help you achieve that.”

Documents show 81 percent of the teachers and staff have earned at least a master’s degree with an average of 12-years of teaching experience.

“Central is very unique in how people treat each other,” Hogue added, “and how the teachers treat the students.”

“We have really good people here,” Ash said. “Life happens, and our teachers and students take care of each other. … The most important thing is we’re turning out successes for the next generation. I have no doubt they’re going to be successful in everything they do.”

PHOTOS / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
(Front Page and top photo) Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam checks in with students during Kyle Prince’s math class.

(Bottom three photos) Dr. Chesney visits Central to introduce students to robotic surgery techniques.