The World War I hero Alvin C. York—who only had nine months of schooling—funded and built the institute because he wanted to prove Tennessee’s rural youth could accomplish anything given a proper education. In 1937, he donated the building, along with almost 400 acres, to the state. Its students have become politicians, business leaders, and educators. The astronaut Roger Crouch went there.
For the last few years, York Institute has been fighting to exist. In the spring of 2010, the state unceremoniously announced it would turn the school over to Fentress County to fund, and all 94 employees received termination notices. “No type of transition, no ‘this is in the works,’ nothing,” Fentress County Director of Schools Mike Jones said to a Knoxville news station. “It bothers me.” The school only managed to stay afloat when, that summer, funding was restored on a nonrecurring basis. Every year, the school faced the same instability until this most recent budget cycle when the state finally announced they would continue to manage and fund the school, but the school’s budget was cut severely. Times are still tough.
I met with York Institute’s superintendent, Phil Brannon, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. “Thirty days ’til Christmas,” read a whiteboard beside the desk of the school’s office manager, who was decorating for the holidays. Brannon is tall, white-haired, and bearded. He would be an imposing figure if not for his ready smile; instead, in keeping with the season, he reminded me of Santa Claus.
Brannon graduated from York Institute in 1978 and then earned a degree in animal science at Tennessee Tech University. He returned to Fentress County planning to farm the land his family has cultivated for eight generations, and he supplemented his income by substitute teaching. After a year, he decided to teach full-time and farm part-time. As soon as he was certified, he was hired to teach remedial classes at York. “I would have English, math, and science, all in the same period” he told me. All but one of his students passed. He gradually rose through the ranks until he was tapped for the superintendent position a decade ago. The students call him Dr. Phil. “I tell them, I’m not a doctor; I just have a [Education Specialist degree],” he said. “They’re not changing.”
During the 10 years that Brannon has led York, No Child Left Behind has died; the Common Core and Race to the Top have arisen. College- and career-readiness have become popular catchphrases to explain the need for the latest round of education reform, leaving educators, parents, and students to work out what this will look like in their classrooms.
Larger consolidated or urban schools can offer multiple tiers of the same class, so students can choose whether to take general education or college preparatory classes. Some students are even able to get into Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses. Rural schools don’t have the teachers or classrooms needed to maintain these programs, so they have to rely on community partners for help.