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By Amy Beth Miller-The Daily Times

Blount County’s three school districts celebrated 10 of their best student success stories Friday at the 2016 Turnaround Achievement Awards.

One student recipient from each middle and high school showed the power of making positive choices and having support from family and school, during an emotional ceremony at the Capitol Theatre.

Teachers, students and parents smiled and choked back tears as they recalled the journeys. Alcoa teacher David Baumann met Montana Tatham when she attended Pershing Academy of Learning to catch up academically after missing six months of school because of family circumstances. “She was very behind credit wise,” he said, but as Montana caught up she was called the “valedictorian of PAL.” A foster family adopted Montana, and Baumann said, “she blossomed.” “It’s awesome to see the confident young lady she has grown into,” the teacher said.

Afterward, Montana said that when she began completing classes and earning good grades for the first time, her confidence grew. She is grateful for her adoptive parents, Crystal and Chris Tatham, and the caring guidance counselors, principals,  and teachers. “If you’re willing to make the effort, they’re willing to help,” she said.

Other Turnaround Award winners had struggled with attention and behavior problems and have become attentive, respectful students and leaders in their classes.

David Henry racked up 20 discipline referrals in his freshman year and 18 as a sophomore. As a senior, he had only four and Heritage High Assistant Principal Robert Reeves said, “I haven’t seen him in my office since Christmas.” David thanked his family and thanked the school, “for giving me another chance to show that I’m good and can do good.” When Jake Walker first was sent to Maryville Academy, “he was a follower,” teacher John Chambers said. “He got in with the wrong crowd.”

“He became a leader,” Chambers said.  “I’m very humbled to receive this,” Jake said as he accepted the award. Later, the student said, “I got mixed up in some stuff I shouldn’t have.” However, “I got tired of letting people down, especially my mom and dad.” When Jake was expelled as a freshman, math teacher Scott Harness contacted him and took him to lunch. “It really meant a lot to me,” Jake said. “He told me that it wasn’t the end of the world and I could come back.”

Harness recognized that Jake was an excellent math student, even when the student was out of school for three months because of severe burns from a fireworks accident. “I didn’t want him to waste that,” Harness said.

Keeping in touch

The teachers and student have kept in touch over the years, even texting during the summer. The turnaround wasn’t easy Jake admitted. “It’s still hard,” he said, and he attends meeting to help him stay away from drugs. Jake also has encouraged another student to attend the meetings. “I think I helped him,” Jake said.

Jim Kirk, who retired last year after 41 years as an Alcoa teacher and principal, served as the keynote speaker for the event. He called the Turnaround Achievement Awards “one of the most important and emotional things I’ve done.”

Kirk, who now mentors principals, recalled a student who received one of the awards 12 years ago. At the age of 11, the boy had received severe burns from a kitchen grease fire and doctors thought his condition was “pretty bleak.” The boy not only recovered but became a champion football player and played rugby in college.

Now 24, the young man told Kirk that receiving the Turnaround Achievement Award “made him feel like he could do anything.” Now he’s an entrepreneur and preparing to start his own company.

Kirk encouraged the students to “surround yourself with people who love you and care about you.”

He ended his remarks with a quote from motivational speaker Josh Shipp: “Either you get bitter or you get better. It’s that simple. You either take what has been dealt to you and allow it to make you a better person or you allow it to tear you down. The choice doesn’t belong to fate, it belongs to you.”

The Costner and Greene law firm sponsors the awards, and Bob Kesling, “Voice of the Vols,” served as master of ceremonies.

2016 Blount County Turnaround Achievement Awards

Montana Tatham, Alcoa High School

Jonathan Pierson, Alcoa Middle School

Luke Hutsell, Carpenters Middle School

Adam Matthews, Eagleton Middle School

David Henry, Heritage High School

Cosmo Barry, Heritage Middle School

Jake Walker, Maryville High School

Milliea England, Maryville Junior High School

Edward Clay Stooksbury, Union Grove Middle School

Brittney Nicole Snoderly, William Blount High School

Tom Sherlin- The Daily Times - Photographer