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Love Chapel staff, students deal with that sinkhole feeling

May 11th, 2014 9:19 pm by Brad Hicks

Love Chapel staff, students deal with that sinkhole feeling

The 2013-14 school year marked the first full year of classes at Love Chapel Elementary School's temporary site adjacent to Unicoi County High School. (Brad Hicks/Johnson City Press)

The staff and more than 230 students at Love Chapel Elementary School in Erwin have become quite adept at adapting to change over the past couple of years.

The start of the 2013-14 school year brought with it yet another major change — it would mark the first year of classes at Love Chapel’s temporary site. With the school year now winding down, school system officials and educators reflected on the year, which they agree brought some challenges. However, they also agree those at Love Chapel have continued to make the best of a difficult and unusual situation.

In March 2013, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted to have the school system lease 12 modular units for a period of three years. These modular classrooms were quickly installed at a site adjacent to Unicoi County High School to serve as the school’s temporary location beginning with this school year.

Classes have not been held at the school’s original location since August 2012, when a large sinkhole was discovered on school grounds, and classes will not be held there again. One month before it voted to lease the modular classrooms, the school board voted to permanently close the school’s original location. This measure followed the receipt of an engineering report that indicated several areas across the property showed signs of sinkhole activity or were in the process of developing sinkhole activity.

Ben Evely has been the man in charge at Love Chapel for the past four years. The principal said although the school’s staff members know continuing classes at the original location was no longer feasible, it wasn’t easy to see the facility closed, as he and others held emotional ties to the approximately 60-year-old school.

“When you look back on it, you have to realize at the time it was really a tragedy,” he said. “It was emotionally difficult for a lot of our teachers. You had teachers that had been working in that building for 28, 29, 30 years. Some of them, including myself, went to school at Love Chapel, so looking back on it, it was a little more difficult, I guess, than we realized at the time.”

Love Chapel is the only school Cindy Peavyhouse and Renee Lingerfelt have known in their teaching careers. Both said they get “chills” when thinking about the sinkhole that eventually led to its closure, as other teachers, students, parents and they themselves had passed over the spot where it opened up numerous times. As Evely said, they realize closing the school was the only option, but moving on from the only school at which they had ever taught was difficult.

“I guess it’s like when you’ve lived in a house for 21 years and then you move to a new house. It never feels like home,” said Lingerfelt, who has taught at Love Chapel for 21 years.

The move to the temporary site this year represented Love Chapel’s second move in the past two school years. Within days of the sinkhole’s discovery, its staff and students were relocated to available space at Unicoi County Intermediate School and Unicoi County Middle School for the duration of the 2012-13 school year. As expected, this presented its share of challenges. Limited space was one obstacle. For functions involving all students and staff, gymnasiums of other schools had to be borrowed. PTO events for different classes often had to be scheduled on different evenings. Love Chapel students shared the hallways with students in higher grade levels.

Still, Evely said Love Chapel’s staff rallied to make this work, but were far from alone in this effort. They were aided by staff members at the intermediate and middle schools, Evely said.

“First of all, the people we worked with last year at the intermediate school and the middle school were great,” Evely said. “They were gracious hosts, if you will. They were spectacular to work with.”

“We had a wonderful setup,” Peavyhouse said of teaching at the middle school last year. “We had our own space, but still, we were separated from our peers, and we broke down and set up three classrooms in a year. So the joke was, we were professional movers by the beginning of this year.”

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ove Chapel third-graders, who will move on to the intermediate school next year, spent only two of their four years at the school in its original location. And these students are already familiar with the intermediate school after spending last year there.

“It was really weird walking around the hallways with a ton of fourth- and fifth-graders coming out,” said third-grader Thomas Savage. “They were really talkative and really tall.”

The third-graders’ first and only year at the temporary site is now coming to a close, as the last days of school is May 23. Savage said he and his classmates quickly acclimated themselves to their new surroundings when the year began.

“It was hard getting used to the new school, but yet again, we got used to it pretty quickly,” he said.

As these students prepare to become intermediate school students themselves, they reflected on what they miss most from Love Chapel’s original location. These include larger classrooms, having a gymnasium, a larger cafeteria, a bigger swing set and a stage.

But the temporary site has its share of pros, several third-graders said. They said they were surrounded by more friends this year, as the school was no longer divided between two locations. Love Chapel students once again had their own playground — something they didn’t last year.

Student Riley Tapp said the larger classrooms and cafeteria compared to the intermediate school was nice. John Woodfin said he was glad Love Chapel students again had their own playground. The ability to go from one classroom to another, something these students were unable to do last year, was also mentioned as a good thing.

“I like getting to switch classes,” Vanessa Batrez said.

The move from the middle school and intermediate schools to the temporary site this year brought its own challenges. Evely said one of the first challenges was to get Love Chapel’s staff back on the same page, as it had been split up the prior year.

“We were really kind of in two departments last year, one at the Intermediate School and one at the Middle School, so we really had to reunify as a group, so to speak, which wasn’t hard to do, obviously, but it’s one of those things we had to focus on,” Evely said.

The temporary location also brought about other challenges. Early this year, traffic flow in and out of the school was a concern. This quickly ironed itself out, and Evely said school staff can now dismiss Love Chapel’s students in about 15 minutes. One challenge that continued to present itself throughout the year was dealing with the weather, as there are no hallways between modular classroom units.

But Evely said Love Chapel teachers and students have tackled these and other difficulties head-on this year.

“The thing that you learn working with students, especially young kids, I think, is they’re resilient,” he said. “They really answer the call to whatever you ask them to do. If it’s cold, we don’t think twice about just throwing a jacket on and walking to wherever we’re supposed to go, or if it’s raining, we’ve got umbrellas at about every door.”

Both Lingerfelt and Peavyhouse said it was a relatively smooth transition to the temporary Love Chapel site. They also agree it is for great for teachers and students to again have a space to call their own.

“This is much better than last year,” Lingerfelt said. “I was in the middle of a pod teaching kindergarten. It was workable, but it’s much better having my own classroom.”

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n spite of recent turbulence, Love Chapel students have continued to excel, scoring highly on state report cards and standardized testing. Evely said this speaks volumes of the staff’s dedication and commitment, as well as the students’ willingness and ability to adjust to new situations. These, along with the support of parents and the community, has made a far-from-ideal situation work, Evely said.

“To be back to being Love Chapel is important to me and to our staff and to our students, as well,” he said.

Love Chapel’s classes could be held at the temporary site for at least two more years, a scenario Peavyhouse described as “doable.” Still, she said she does not wish to end her teaching career in a modular classroom. Peavyhouse and other teachers want to see Love Chapel return to its own permanent location.

“We want the ideal,” Peavyhouse said. “We want Love Chapel School.”

While she said the planning necessary for the smooth operation of the temporary site has been “phenomenal,” Lingerfelt agreed Love Chapel must return to a building of its own in the future.

“I want to be in a new building before I go,” Lingerfelt said. “I would love to be in a new building. I want our (county) commissioners to know that.”

Director of Schools Denise Brown said there is no update with regard to the acquisition of property for a new school, but the Board of Education will be looking at the matter “closely” within the next few months. She also said the school system’s lease of the modular classroom units can be extended if needed.

And, like Evely and Love Chapel’s teachers, Brown said Love Chapel’s 2013-14 has gone exceptionally well, especially considering the circumstances.

“I can’t say enough great things about the positive attitude of of the students, staff and parents during the relocation of Love Chapel Elementary,” Brown said. “The modular buildings are very nice and have worked as well as modular buildings can. Mr. Evely, the teachers and staff have done a tremendous job and have offered the same quality instruction as the students received before. The adjustments for gym space, hallways, weather, etc., are the things you miss most about not having a building.”

Ownership of the original Love Chapel property is set to soon change. In January, the school board voted to have the now-closed school and the approximately six acres of land surrounding it declared as surplus property. No bids were placed for the property on the board’s first attempt to sale it but, after it was advertised on the GovDeals.com website, the property has been sold, Brown said.

“We have received full payment of the $100,000 for the Love Chapel property and will close toward the end of next week,” Brown said Friday.

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