Celebrating change

Turnaround Awards honor students with new attitudes, achievements

Matthew Tipton turned his life around out of spite…at least that’s the joke he makes when discussing how he changed his attitude toward school

Tipton was the featured speaker at the 2009 Turnaround Achievement Awards breakfast sponsored by attorney Steve Greene and Joe Costner. The annual event celebrates middle and high school students in Blount, Alcoa and Maryville school districts who have turned their lives around academically and/or behaviorally.

Tipton graduated in 2003 and was the Turnaround award winner for Alcoa High School that year. Tipton said he turned himself around after seeing his life was going nowhere if he didn’t apply himself in school.

He said he had spent much of his middle and high school years rebelling and distancing himself from the academic success he achieved in elementary when he considered himself a science “nerd”. “I told my nerdy friends things would be different (at high school),” he said. “We can’t play Star Trek anymore.”

Tipton said he scraped by in middle school and high school. “I made my way barely through middle school. In high school I managed to just get through,” he said. “I didn’t really think about what kind of career I was going to have. Then it soaked in and dawned on my. What am I going to do? I wanted to do something people would respect me for.”

His turnaround came in his senior year, he said, when decided to make a change and start doing what he could to graduate. Tipton also started asking himself hard questions about the kind of career he wanted. After explaining to a guidance counselor he wanted to go to Notre Dame, Tipton said he was made to feel he was setting his sights too high.

Tipton vowed to work harder. “My whole turnaround was based on spite, which wasn’t the best reason,” he said as the audience laughed.

Tipton said he managed to graduate Alcoa High School and worked hard during two years at Pellissippi State taking remedial classes. “I blew everything and made A’s,” he said.

Tipton then was accepted to Notre Dame and attended for a semester. After he didn’t enjoy his experience at the school, Tipton opted to return to UT where he’s now majoring in chemical engineering.

Tipton encouraged the award winners to always do what they fear. “If there’s one piece of advice I would give to the winners today, it is to step outside your box and do things you’re afraid to do,” he said. “The best times are when I’m doing something I was afraid to do. You’re not going to enjoy doing it at first, but it’s the best decision you can make.”

At Alcoa High School, Kaltrina Ismaili was honored for her achievements. Kelly Wallace introduced her.

Wallace shared how Kaltrina had escaped from Yugoslavia in 1999 and ended up with family in Florida before eventually coming to Alcoa. She skipped her junior year to attempt to reunite with her family. Circumstances prevented her from being able to reunite with her parents in Europe, and she returned to Alcoa where she applied herself to her studies. “Kaltrina’s newfound dedication to her studies allowed her to complete her junior and senior years in one year,” Wallace said.

At Alcoa Middle School, Derenisha Sutton was introduced by Carrie Tarwater. Sutton came to Alcoa Middle School in the fifth grade after she evacuated from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “I had a hard time understanding her Cajun drawl,” Tarwater said. “She struggled academically, socially and behaviorally but she made cheerleading her sixth grade year. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her blossom into a beautiful, classy and smart young lady. We’re really proud of her turnaround.”

Taylor Breeding represented Carpenters Middle School and was introduced by Beth Brown. Every semester teachers scan their roll books checking to make sure they don’t have “that” kid, the one known for bad behavior, Brown said, and she expected Breeding to be “that” kid. “Boy, was I wrong,” she said.

Brown said Breeding had spent time at the Everett Alternative School and one of his goals was to not return. “He had another goal - make the baseball team. Now he’s a wonderful player and teammate,” she said. “He’s come a long way. One of the greatest attributes is the ability to change, and he has that ability,” she said.

Brianna Bobo represented Eagleton Middle School and Sally Jo Witty introduced her. The student struggled in sixth and seventh grade but was much more mature in eighth grade and very prepared. “When she got to the eighth grade, it was as if it was a new little girl,” Witty said. “She’s one of those rare students who has supplies and she always has a smile.

Witty said she asked Bobo what advice she would have for others students. “She said, ‘Start hanging with the right people and listening to your teacher,’” Witty said.

Christopher Wilburn represented Heritage High School and teacher Gary Farmer introduced him. “Christopher is the epitome of what this award is about,” Farmer said.

The teacher said that during Wilburn’s freshman year, his attitude and academic performance were about low as they could be - he achieved two credit hours. His sophomore year, Wilburn got a girlfriend and that attention turned him around academically, Farmer said.

“From that point, his grade point average was a 3.0 to a 3.4 and he will graduate. There is no more of a deserving individual,” Farmer said.

Trevor Keller represented Heritage Middle School and teacher Norma Finley introduced him. “I’m very proud to present this. Trevor has made such great strides. He came into sixth grade very unsure of himself wanting someone with him to accomplish tasks,” she said. “He’s made great strides. He goes to class independently. He’s a joy and is always willing to do anything we ask him to do.”

Corey Drain represented Maryville High School, and Brett Coulter introduced him.

Coulter said it appeared Drain would have trouble graduating but Drain made a turnaround in his behavior and academic achievement. “I’m happy to say Corey is an excellent student. He finds teachers who can help him. He’s a turnaround,” Coulter said. “Thank you Corey. You proved me wrong.”

Jacob Fowler represented Maryville Middle School and teacher Scotty Hicks introduced him. Hicks said that as a seventh grade student, Fowler missed a lot of schools days. “And when he was there, he wasn’t there mentally,” Hicks said. “Jacob has truly matured through this year. Last year he was missing classes two to three times a week. Now he’s on his way to perfect attendance this year. I’m really proud of Jacob.”

Hicks said students like Fowler are why teachers are in the business. “Don’t give up on kids like we see today,” he said. “These are the ones who truly need us.”

Bradley Ingram represented William Blount High School and Ramona Jordan introduced him. At the end of the first semester of his freshman year, Ingram was only passing two classes in part because he had a good paying part-time job and didn’t see a need for an education, but Jordan said she had this advice. “An education is going to get you a lot further than the cable company,” she said.

Ingram began to slowly improve and after his sophomore year he had earned eight credits. At that point, Jordan said Ingram confided in her that he was interested in learning how to be a mechanic and work on cars.

Jordan said Ingram began to apply himself and even started his own DJ business for special events. “Not only is he going to finish school, he’s showing initiative by being an entrepreneur. He’s going to fulfill the requirements for a diploma,” she said. “He’s realized education is the key to becoming whatever you want to do.”

Aaron Shankle represented Union Grove Middle School and Alicia Lail introduced him. Shankle was very frustrated with school both socially and academically, and he struggled through his sixth and seventh grade years, she said.

“All of a sudden, in eighth grade I’d see Aaron, and he’d greet me with a smile,” Lail said. “This young man has matured and become a role model and encourages students to do their work.”

Lail said students like Shankle need teachers who care. “This is why we’re in education. This is a success story,” she said. “Aaron Shankle, you made my year.”

Greene and Costner annually sponsor the event. Greene paused to check his emotions as tears started to well up when he spoke. “It’s heartwarming for me to see you kids go through what you’ve gone through and turn your lives around,” he said. “I am so proud of you, and I want to keep up with all of you.”

Costner said he appreciated being able to recognize the students. “It’s just rewarding to think we’re playing a part in these kid’s lives by recognizing them,” he said. “We think it gives them incentive.”

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