At Bearden High School, educators are looking to build a new future for the students through engineering, specifically robotics.

The move comes roughly a year after members of the philanthropic Haslam family and Pilot Flying J gave the Knox County school system $10 million. The bulk of the money – $8.7 million – was set aside to provide synthetic turf fields and some running tracks at the county’s 13 high schools.

But, lost in the headlines was another $100,000 donation for each of the system’s 13 traditional high schools to use for academics.

“When the money came along, I was just like, ‘This is unbelievable – this gift just fell in our lap – hey, here’s the chance to do something,’” said Bearden High School principal John Bartlett. “That’s one-time money to start up a program that’s going to help a lot of students.”

Bearden High School teacher Ron Rubpard uses a new interactive Promethean board.
Bearden High School teacher Ron Rubpard uses a new interactive Promethean board.

As it stands, school leaders submitted proposals to the Haslam family earlier this year, detailing how they would use the money.

The school system is now putting together a report that should be complete some time in December.

“There's a lot of flexibility that's been given to our school leaders,” interim Knox County Schools Superintendent Buzz Thomas added. “That's the way we're trying to run the school district: we're trying to make decisions as close to the action as possible, and that's the way the Haslam family did this gift."

A majority of the money so far has gone to technology, according to a WBIR 10News analysis of the expenditures.

Schools so far have purchased or plan to purchase new computers, laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards, cameras and calculators.

They’ve also bought office and lab furniture, dry erase tables and materials to help improve test scores.

Some of the money will pay for instructional coaches and tutors and some will support career readiness programs through field trips, job shadowing and student internships.

"We're on a track over the next 3 years to have one-on-one technology in each school and each student's hands,” Thomas said. "This gift gave a lot of schools the opportunity to kind of surge ahead."

The money also enables schools to continue to update what they have.

“When we opened our doors in 2008, all of our technology was new,” Hardin Valley Academy principal Sallee Reynolds said in a letter to the Haslam family in February, adding that the school plans to spend its money almost entirely on new computers and laptops. “Eight years later, many of our teachers are still using the original laptops that have been serviced several times.”


Other schools also plan to spend the money on more than just computers.

At Karns High School, for example, officials plan to buy some $55,750 in startup equipment for a culinary arts program.

In Fulton, leaders are looking into getting new instruments for the marching band.

And at Farragut, the principal has proposed creating a college and career center.

“Our goal in budgeting our money was to fund items which impact the maximum number of students; impact areas which historically have had little to no funding sources; address needs highlighted by last year’s AdvancedEd Accreditation deficiencies; and to align resources with our current technology and academic goals,” Farragut High School principal Stephanie Thomason wrote in her proposal to the Haslam foundation.

Bearden High School has added a new 3D printer to its robotics lab.
Bearden High School has added a new 3D printer to its robotics lab.

The Austin-East Magnet principal proposed a new $24,000 school counseling office that will include eight desktops, an Apple TV computer work station, conference tables and couches.

“This will also allow us to do more personal interactions with students, which will create a personalized educational experience,” principal Nathan Langlois wrote in a letter to the Haslam family in March. “Also, these interactions will influence the socio-economic support of our students, which will positively impact academic growth and achievement.”

In Powell, the high school is seeking a $25,000 messaging board.

“As with most schools, Powell High School is the center of the Powell community,” principal Chad Smith said in his letter to the Haslams. “We are the epicenter for all information passed through this community, and to that end, we wish to purchase an electronic messaging board for our school . . . to pass along pertinent school information, praise student achievement and provide real-time updates to the Powell High School community.”

Jim Haslam, founder and Chairman of Pilot Flying J said he hopes the foundation’s overall donation “will give our schools the opportunity to become even more competitive in both academics and athletics.”

He noted schools already have begun installing turf at some of the fields earlier this year and looks forward to a report about the academic projects.

“We understand that some schools are using the funds for technology, and some are using the money to launch new programs, such as a robotics lab and culinary arts program,” Haslam said. “These are smart and creative uses of the funding, and we believe these enhancements to school resources and curriculums will help develop our youth and inspire future leaders.”


At Bearden High School, officials have so far used the bulk of the school’s donation – $79,250 – to establish and outfit a robotics lab that is expected to accommodate about 170 students per semester.

"Any students interested in robotics, engineering, we wanted to have a robust program available to them,” said the school’s principal, John Bartlett. “Whether they go on to be an engineer in college or not, at least they leave here with a good knowledge of the working parts of engineering."

Bartlett said the school purchased a $15,000 3D printer to manufacture parts for robots on-site “to give kids a chance to design something and print it out, see if it works.”

The money also went to new computers, a Promethean board and renovating the room to establish the lab.

"We haven't spent all that money,” Bartlett added. “We've saved quite a bit of that money back, so when we run up to something we need, figure out, 'Hey, we need a part. We need a piece of equipment,' we have the money to buy that right now."

Bearden High School principal John Bartlett talks about the school's new robotics lab.
Bearden High School principal John Bartlett talks about the school's new robotics lab.

In addition, the school set aside about $18,000 for a writing center in the library.

"It makes an impact for students across this county,” the principal said.

Bearden High School teacher Ron Rupard, who oversees the robotics program, agreed.

"Teaching's the same, the content's the same, but now that we have this nice technology, the kids are getting really interested in learning the same things they're learning up there,” said Rupard. “But now they can get their hands on it, so I'm not just teaching them trig; they're building a ramp."

He added: “Students who probably are getting C's and D's up in their math classes in the main building are learning trig down here with me, simply because they're interested, and that's really the difference. It's not that I'm a better teacher. It's not that they're dumb or smart. It's-- they want to learn and so they're learning, and I think that's been the greatest part so far."


Here’s a snapshot of how the schools said they wanted to spend some of the money:

1) Karns High School


AP Summer Institute

Software for math and English

Culinary Arts Program Startup Equipment ($55,750) – necessary equipment to start program

2) South Doyle High School

Continue funding “master” teachers who teach some classes but support and coach the other teachers. The school received money under the Teacher Advance Program, or TAP, for the past four years, but the grant expired. The school wants to continue the program for another two years. It will cost $54,000

Testing practice software


3) Fulton High School

New instruments the marching band

Support for college and career readiness through field trips job shadowing and student internships

Media-center makeover

4)Gibbs High School

Chromebooks ($51,000)

Mastery Connect licensing for a program, which costs about $7 per student and provides teachers a tool to monitor the program of each student.

Professional development funding ($5,000)

5) Halls High Schools

Chromebooks ($73,800) and notebooks ($11,600)

Device carts to house the chromebooks

Cameras and calculators

6) Hardin Valley Academy

Computers, laptops, iPads

7) Powell High School

Chromebooks and lap tops ($75,000)

Electronic messaging board ($25,000)

8) West High School


Technology instructional coach to work with teachers on incorporating technology into lessons and help provide training

Tables and chairs

9) Austin-East Magnet High School

School counseling office that will include desktops (8) an Apple TV computer work stations, conference tables and couches ($24,000)

Chromebooks ($52,100

28 desktops for the media center ($24,000)

10) Central High School

Chromebooks, laptops, projector, adding or sustaining tutoring, intervention and leadership programs

11) Bearden High School

Establishing a robotics and engineering lab complete with the robotics equipment to outfit the lab

Transforming the library in a “learning commons” to serve as a hub for academic services and interventions for the students. (Glass partitions, dry erase tables, ancillary equipment and furniture)

12) Carter High School

ACT prep materials to cover two years that include tutorials

Continue employing two Master Teachers for five years (at $5,000 each)

Mac computer lab (iMacs, metal and wood training tables, chairs). This will be $38,600.

13) Farragut High School

Creating a college and career center

Sending teachers to conference training


Online materials to help prep for tests