Students See a Bright New Future With Tennessee School District’s Transformation

How Verizon Innovative Learning brought STEM classes and careers to a rural corner of the state
Feb 2, 2024 9:30 AM ET


In Polk County, the beautiful and rural southeastern corner of Tennessee, internet access for the often isolated communities has been a challenge for residents — including the student body of Polk County schools. That’s why the Verizon Innovative Learning programs in the district, which include Chilhowee Middle School, Copper Basin Elementary School, Copper Basin High School, and Polk County High School, have been so revolutionary.

“The geography in our area does play a huge role in our students’ lives,” says Danielle McClary, Instructional Technology Coach and Verizon Innovative Learning Lab Mentor, of the county’s mountainous and river-crossed terrain. “We have many students who live in pretty isolated areas. They don't have internet connection and often have spotty cell connection. So that has created barriers for our school and all of our schools in our district.”

Thanks to the Verizon programs, all students now have access to technology, without having to travel significant distances. “Our school has completely transformed,” says McClary. “We went from having virtually no or little access to technology in our classrooms to every student having a device.”

For their part, the students love the technology and the focus on STEM. “We’ve never had anything big at our school like this,” says Kenzie Stamey, an eighth grader at Chilhowee Middle School, of the cutting-edge tech, from VR goggles to 3D printers. “It makes me feel proud of our school because we’re a little school from a little tiny county.”

But it’s not just the impact on their secondary education that the students are thinking about. With exposure to STEM fields, they have radical new ideas for their future studies and careers, too. “A part of our STEM classes is career exploration,” says McClary. “So they are not only doing hands-on projects and learning how to use these devices and programs, but they're also at the same time researching and learning about careers that have a STEM focus.”

“It opens up more careers for kids who didn’t know they could have those jobs,” says Stamey, who aims to be a physical therapist or an ultrasound tech someday.

One such fellow student in the district is Titus Duckworth, a senior at Copper Basin High School. Without Verizon Innovative Learning, Duckworth would have had little exposure to technology, as it was lacking both at school and at home. He’s now thinking about his future career differently. “STEM classes changed, like, the course of everything,” says Duckworth, “because I’m looking to go to college and study electrical engineering.”

With remote work on the rise and STEM careers expanding in the area, McClary hopes her graduates stay in the community. “Being able to prepare them for jobs that will allow them to be successful but also stay local is extremely important,” she says.

For free education resources including hundreds of free K-12 lessons, immersive learning experiences, and professional development courses aligned to micro-credentials to help educators learn new skills and feel confident integrating technology into the classroom, visit Verizon Innovative Learning HQ

“We’ve never had anything big at our school like this. It makes me feel proud of our school because we’re a little school from a little tiny county.”

Kenzie Stamey, student, Chilhowee Middle School