Wilson County Commission highlights several county schools achievements

The Wilson County Commission honored several personnel and students of Wilson County Schools on Monday in the group’s first meeting since the 2016-2017 school year ended.

Xavier Smith • Mt. Juliet News
Wilson County Schools director Donna Wright watches Monday as Wilson County Commissioner Frank Bush recognizes Mt. Juliet’s theater director Rodney Park, principal Mel Brown and senior Amanda Dowswell. Wright also received recognition for her superintendent of the year award.

The group honored Mt. Juliet High School’s Rodney Parks and principal Mel Brown, as well as Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright, for their accomplishments.

Parks heads Mt. Juliet’s theater department, which consists of nine classes, beginning with theater I for beginners and theater IV for advanced students. There are about 250 students involved in the school’s theater classes or productions, which allows the department to present productions year round.

The group welcomed upcoming senior Amanda Dowswell. Dowswell, who played the lead female role in the school’s recent rendition of “Phantom of the Opera,” sang two songs for the group, including “God Bless America.”

Commissioner Frank Bush led the honoring after he said Commissioner John Gentry boasted about the Mt. Juliet High School production.

The commission also honored Mt. Juliet principal Mel Brown, who was named principal of the year by the Tennessee Association of Secondary School Principals.

Brown has served as Mt. Juliet High School principal for 13 years, beginning in 2004.

“I really want to emphasize this is a family thing. It starts with immediate family, but this is a Wilson County thing. We can’t do anything in education without you. We can’t do anything without Dr. Wright. We can’t do it without the board of education,” Brown said. “This is a very humbling thing. The key is it takes everybody for anybody to do anything.”

The commission also honored Wright after the Professional Educators of Tennessee, a nonpartisan statewide association of Tennessee teachers, named Wright its superintendent of the year for 2016.

“I’m blessed and I feel privileged to not only live and reside in this county, but to work for this school district. It was here all along. I’m a great cheerleader. I will say that,” Wright said.

“[School educators and staff] create the magic and I’m the one that makes sure they have the resources, tools and everything they need to do it. Once again, thank you, but I thank them for making this job what it is.”

The commission also approved a continuing budget and tax rate for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

It is possible the fiscal year budget will not be approved until after the beginning of the fiscal year, and under the provisions of the 1981 Financial Management Act, Wilson County does not have to adopt a budget for the new fiscal year until Aug. 31 but must adopt it during July or August or get the approval of the comptroller.

The amounts set in the current appropriations budget will be continued until a new budget is adopted.

Xavier Smith • Mt. Juliet News
Mt. Juliet High School principal Mel Brown receives a handshake from Wilson County Commissioner Dan Walker on Monday. The commission recognized Brown for his principal of the year award, along with Mt. Juliet’s theater department under the direction of Rodney Parks and schools director Donna Wright.

By Xavier Smith


Kenny Martin: Do you know the dangers of bullying?

Did you know that bullying is one of the biggest concerns of young people today? Bullying is a serious problem with 8-out-of-10 children bullied at some point in their childhood.

Kenny Martin
City Manager
Mt. Juliet

Bullying happens at school, at home, on the streets and on every level of social media. A lot of young people don’t even realize they are making other people’s lives miserable. They think they are just joking in making fun of or bullying someone. The truth is it hurts to be bullied and can change someone’s life forever. Bullying has even led to self-harming, suicide and murder. 

Bullying happens when someone picks on someone and makes their life miserable for no real reason but meanness. Bullying can come in many forms from kicking, smacking, tripping, making fun of, threatening or sending out false messages and rumors about a person through the internet and so on.

People have been bullied because of their size, accent, weight, color of their skin, stance on certain issues, interests or just because they are the new kid on the block or at school. Bullies are often insecure and pick on others to make themselves feel more important and powerful.

The sad thing is what a bully doesn’t see. Their bullying can lead to low self-esteem, suicide, revenge and even assault or murder. These are all things that can be avoided.

If you are someone you know is being bullied, there is help. If you’re bullied, you should tell someone. It’s very important to get other people involved and to ask for advice or help.

If you are bullied, it can feel like the whole world is against you, and you are on your own. Not true. The worst thing to do is to sit back and accept it. It won’t get any better unless you do something about it. If you are the victim of bullying at school you should contact your teacher, the principal or the guidance counselor for help. If the bullying happens on the streets or away from home, you can contact your parents or the police.

And if the bullying takes place at home, you need to advise your parents. Bullying is also a problem with adults. Most child bullies simply grow up to be adult bullies. The only thing that changes is the age of the people they bully.

Bullying is not just a child’s game, and it’s a horrible practice that ruins lives no matter what age and causes scars that can last a lifetime. Bullying also isn’t just committed in person these days. It’s now done via social media and other forms and is totally unacceptable.

In closing, please know help, support, love, kindness and advice are out there. Don’t accept or participate in bullying. 

Kenny Martin is city manager in Mt. Juliet.

Wright inducted into bus driver hall of fame

Wilson County school bus driver David Wright became the ninth inductee into the Tennessee School Bus Driver Hall of Fame last week.

Photo courtesy of Facebook
Wilson County bus driver David Wright (right) smiles with his family during Tennessee School Bus Driver Hall of Fame ceremony last week. Wright is the first Wilson County driver and seventh person in the state inducted into the hall of fame.

Wright, one of the longest tenured drivers in the state, has spent 49 years with the school system, starting in 1967. Wright has driven a bus for every school in Wilson County.

Wright has said he takes pride in his bus and making sure his pupils arrive at their destination without harm. He is also known for his love of Wilson County sports and can be spotted at athletic games after driving a busload of athletes.

Last month, Wilson County Deputy Director of Schools Mickey Hall said he knew Wright would take any route or help in any way possible if he received a call from Hall.

The Wilson County Commission honored Wright in 2015.

“Wright is the only emergency driver in Wilson County due to his experience and has driven for every school in Wilson County,” Hutto said. “Mr. Wright is so knowledgeable of the roads in the county and has such a good rapport with teachers and students. They ask him personally to drive on field trips. He’s known for having the cleanest bus and takes pride in his work.”

Wright also worked for the Wilson County Sheriff’s Department for 37 years as a reserve deputy, along with Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp., Sadler Funeral Home and more.

Wright has been married to his wife, Helen, for nearly 50 years, and the couple has a son, Calvin.

By Xavier Smith


County names two new principals

Dunn to lead Carroll-Oakland, Price to run Watertown

Jason Dunn

Wilson County Schools recently announced the appointment of two new principals for the upcoming school year. 

Jason Dunn, who served as assistant principal and athletic director at Carroll-Oakland Elementary School for the past three years, will assume the role of principal at Carroll-Oakland. 

Kayla Price, who served as assistant principal at Watertown Middle School since 2014, was tapped to lead the school as principal.

School leaders said Dunn and Price were instrumental leaders in the district for a number of years.

Prior to his work as assistant principal at Carroll-Oakland, Dunn worked as a teacher at MAP Academy, where he was often praised for going above and beyond for students who were the most “at risk” of failure.

Kayla Price

Since assuming the role of assistant principal at Carroll-Oakland, Dunn has demonstrated his strong work ethic among peers and parents alike, Wilson County Schools officials said.

During her 16 years with the district, Price also made a name for herself because of her willingness to tackle some of the district’s tougher projects.

Prior to her appointment as assistant principal for Watertown Middle School, Price spent 10 years working as an elementary teacher in and around the Watertown community.

Staff Reports

Mt. Juliet’s Spring inks with Cumberland cross country

Cumberland coach Jim Seckel announced the signing of Mt. Juliet native Hannah Spring to scholarship papers this week for the 2017-18 academic year, becoming the third Phoenix signee for the upcoming season.

Spring placed fifth in the region meet and finished 76th among 180 competitors in the 2016 TSSAA State Cross Country Championships, covering the 5K course at Percy Warner Park in Nashville in 21:16.22. She was also a member of the Mt. Juliet High 4-by-800-meter relay at this year’s TSSAA State Track Championships that placed eighth in 9:57.21.

Spring has registered personal-bests of 2:31 in the 800-meters, 5:36 in the 1600-meters and 20:54 over 5K. She is the daughter of Jimmy Spring and Sabrina Spring.

Staff Reports

Rowlett out after six seasons at Mt. Juliet

George Page • Mt. Juliet News
Brad Rowlett celebrates Mt. Juliet’s win over Portland in the Distirct 9-AAA championship round, forcing the “if necessary” game the next day, which the Lady Bears won.

Mississippi’s Knepp new Lady Bears coach

Haley Knepp was named the new head softball coach at Mt. Juliet High School last Thursday after six-year coach Brad Rowlett was not retained.

Rowlett, 56, said he will remain on the MJHS faculty as a Level 5 special ed math teacher. But he is out as Lady Bears coach after posting a 136-87 record, including a state tournament trip in his first season, 2012.

The 2017 season wasn’t Mt. Juliet’s best and appeared headed to an early end when the Lady Bears were upset by Portland in the opening round of the District 9-AAA tournament. But Mt. Juliet, with just one senior (a non-starter) on the roster, won five straight through the loser’s bracket to win the championship and eventually reached the sectional before losing at Brentwood to finish a 25-16 season.

Rowlett said he was offered the opportunity to resign by principal Mel Brown, but declined.

“I wasn’t given any explanation,” Rowlett said. “I left with my dignity. I have no regrets.

“It’s a decision Mr. Brown made and I respect it. It is what it is.”

The school and the central office issued a press release announcing Knepp’s hiring, but a call to Brown’s phone seeking comment on Rowlett was not returned.

Rowlett, a Hermitage native, coached youth softball in Mt. Juliet and assisted another MJ sandlot coach, Junior Hawkins, at Cumberland University in the 1990s. Leaving a plumbing career to pursue one in coaching, he enrolled as a 35-year-old freshman at Cumberland where he joined Hawkins’ staff. He also worked as a sports writer for the Mt. Juliet News.

Hired at Lebanon High, he spent 12 seasons coaching the Lady Devils to a 223-189 record and four Region 4-AAA appearances at a school which had no fastpitch feeder league to draw from until the Lebanon Girls Softball Association switched from slowpitch early in his LHS tenure.

He was named District 7-AAA coach of the year in 2005 and earned the same honor in 9-AAA at Mt. Juliet in ’14.

Rowlett also coached wrestling at Lebanon, Mt. Juliet and Friendship Christian, where he also assisted childhood friend John McNeal on the Commander football staff. He’s also assisted with Mt. Juliet Middle School football the last six years and said he plans to continue with that role.

But Rowlett said he is finished with softball after posting a career 359-276 record.

New Lady Bear coach comes from Mississippi

Haley Knepp

Knepp attended Kossuth High School in Mississippi, where she was a three-time all-county player and all-division athlete.

Upon graduation, she went on to Northeast Mississippi Community College, where she received third-team MACJC honors as a freshman and first-team conference honors her sophomore year. During the 2011-2012 season, Knepp helped lead the team to a runner-up finish.

In 2013, Knepp went on to pursue her degree at the University of North Alabama, where she helped lead the team to a 40-20 record and an appearance in the NCAA South Regional.

Knepp transferred to Blue Mountain College for her senior season while pursuing her degree in math education. She was named an “All-American Scholar” athlete all four years of college.

Upon graduation, Knepp served as the assistant coach for Booneville High School. She and her staff lead the Lady Blue Devils to a 25-6 record, advancing into the third round of the playoffs.

Knepp said she’s excited to begin her new journey in Mt. Juliet.

“Being a former collegiate softball player and assistant coach, I’ve had the opportunity to play and work for some very successful programs,” she said.

“I look forward to growing and developing this team, not only into successful softball players, but young women as well.”

Team tryouts will be held June 21 and June 22 from 4-6 p.m. at the Mt. Juliet High School softball field. Participants must have a current physical.

By Andy Reed 


Wilson Central FFA wins at state FFA leadership camp

Submitted to Mt. Juliet News
The Wilson Central High School Future Farmers of America chapter recently won outstanding chapter and outstanding officer team at Camp Clements, a leadership and team-development training camp for FFA members. Members pictured include Macee Zaffiro, Kaleigh Crabtree, Miranda Hicks, Michaela Hicks, Hannah Thompson, Shelby Summar, Sydney Miller, Sarah England, Chyanne Bowlen, Rachael Boudreau, Sophia Church, Reagan B, Delaney Spruill, Copelin Smith, Lucas Huffman, Chandler Dunsavage, Andrew Hamblen, Sadie Pittman, Austin Jackson, Tyler Jeanarrette, Austin Syler, K.J. Mills, Hunter Granstaff, Peyton Hamlett and Dylan Allison.

DOYLE – The Wilson Central Future Farmers of America chapter at Wilson Central High School was awarded the outstanding chapter and outstanding officer team June 2.

More than 200 students, advisors and guests attended what was the first week of the 2017 Leadership Training Camp offered to Tennessee FFA members.

Wilson Central FFA won several awards, including first place in quiz bowl. Quiz bowl team members were Andrew Hamblen, Rachael Boudreau, Madison McDonald and Sydney Miller. Shelby Summar earned first place in quiz contest and second place in extemporaneous speaking.

The outstanding officer team was comprised of president Sadie Pittman; vice president Andrew Hamblen; secretary Shelby Summar; treasurer Miranda Hicks; reporter Kaleigh Crabtree; and sentinel Sydney Miller.

To win both outstanding officer team and outstanding chapter, members must be active in specialty classes, officer classes, team sports, camp activities, have majority of their members earn gold leadership award level and have one member to be a camp council representative.

FFA makes a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premiere leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education. Nationally, FFA is comprised of 649,355 members in 7,859 chapters in all 50 states. The Tennessee FFA Association is comprised of 14,084 FFA members in more than 214 high school chapters, seven middle school chapters and eight collegiate chapters. To learn more about FFA, visit ffa.org.

Staff Reports

School board honors student board members

The Wilson County school board recognized its 2016-2017 student school board members Monday as the group gathered for its last official meeting with the school board.

The 2016-2017 student school board members included Preston George with Wilson Central High School, Emma Kate Hall with Lebanon High School, Stella London with Mt. Juliet High School and Macy Harrison with Watertown High School.

The high school representatives report school happenings to the school board monthly and highlight issues that affect their respective schools.

Wright said she took pride in how student board members represented themselves inside and outside of the boardroom and presented themselves in distinct and scholarly fashion.

School board members also bragged on the group.

“You were great and wonderful to be around, and we appreciate you so much,” said board member Larry Inman.

“I spent some time with you guys with student policy, and I’ve learned a lot about what the heartbeat of these high schools are through you guys,” said board member Tom Sottek.

Board members Linda Armistead, Wayne McNeese and Johnie Payton also thanked the students and gave words of encouragement for their future.

“The main thing I want you to think about is whatever you’re going to do the rest of your life, I hope it’s something that everyday when you wake up it’s going to make you happy,” said board member Bill Robinson.

“I really appreciate the positive attitude you brought every month. I appreciate that and the knowledge you shared about what was going on in your school. When we started this program years ago, these were the kind of results we hoped that we would get. I know you all, along with Macy, will be successful in anything you decide to do,” said board chairman Larry Tomlinson.

By Xavier Smith 


Wilson ranks high in children’s health, education study

Wilson County ranked higher than the statewide rate for several children’s education, health and economic well-being categories, according to the recently released Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book.

Statewide improvements in health and education placed Tennessee 35th in the nation, and Wilson County ranks higher than most counties in several areas. Overall, Tennessee ranks 26th in heath, 33rd in education, 35th in economic well being and 40th in family and community.

The data book ranks states in measures of child well being across several different categories, including poverty level, school attendance and economic stability. The annual report provides year-to-year data, as well as a five-year overview.

The population of children living in poverty – or living with an income below the official poverty threshold – in Wilson County declined by more than 2 percent from 2014 to 2015. In 2014, 4,193 children were living in poverty, or 14 percent of the child population, and in 2015, 3,582 children were living in poverty, or 11.7 percent.

That percentage marks the second-lowest percentage of children living in poverty in any county in the state, behind only Williamson County, which has a 5.3 percent rate.

Statewide, 355,680 children are living in poverty, or 24.1 percent of the state’s child population.

About 4 percent of children younger 19 years old are uninsured, slightly lower than the 4.2 percent statewide rate.

About 36.5 percent of students enrolled in public schools in Wilson County were measured as either overweight or obese in 2015. The statewide rate was 38.6 percent.

There were a total of 154 substantiated child abuse cases reported in Wilson County in 2015 at a rate of 5.0 per 1,000 children younger than 18. The number is the highest in five years, with 130 cases in 2014, 93 in 2013, 77 cases in 2012 and 90 cases in 2011.

Statewide 8,730 substantiated child abuse cases were reported at a rate of 5.9 per 1,000 children younger than 18.

Wilson County had five child deaths in 2015, at a rate of 20.8 per 100,000, compared to 219 deaths statewide for a rate of 18.9 per 100,000.

Four teenager deaths by accident, homicide or suicide were reported in 2015, at a rate of 47.5 per 100,000, slightly more than the 46.6 per 100,000 rate statewide for 196 total reported teen deaths by accident, homicide or suicide.

About 36.9 percent of Wilson County students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, significantly lower than the statewide rate of 59.7 percent.

About 2.5 percent of Wilson County high school students dropped out in 2016, a decline from 2.9 percent in 2015. The statewide rate was 5.6 percent in 2016 and 6 percent in 2015.

Wilson County’s graduation rate of 95.1 percent in 2016 – a slight decline from 95.7 percent in 2015 and 96.3 percent in 2014 – is higher than the statewide rate of 88.5 percent.

“The 2017 Kids Count Data Book reflects substantial progress during the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam,” said Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, the state Kids Count affiliate.

“The economic development and business recruitment gains contributed to economic well-being ranking improvements. The educational strategies related to the state’s ‘Drive to 55’ and ‘Tennessee Promise’ have significantly contributed to improved outcomes for children and families, highlighting the importance of a two-generation strategy for the state’s long-term prosperity.”

By Jake Old


Long Hunter State Park to debut new Reading Ranger Story Trail

Submitted to Mt. Juliet News
Long Hunter State Park Ranger Leslie Ann Rawlings stands with visitors along the first Reading Ranger Story Trail in 2016 that featured the book, ‘Over in the Forest: Come and Take a Peek,’ by Marianne Berkes.

Long Hunter State Park will unveil the second edition of the Reading Ranger Story Trail on June 24.

The story trail combines outdoor exercise with childhood literacy through storybook artwork along a quarter-mile trail.

Tennessee State Parks partnered with the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation and Nashville Public Library to bring visitors the children’s storybook, “Pitter and Patter,” by Martha Sullivan. Engaging artwork by Cathy Morrison reveals the journey of two raindrops traveling through the water cycle and greeting animal friends along the way. The story introduces young minds to this vital environmental concept as they walk along a state park trail.

Submitted to Mt. Juliet News
The cover of the current story trail book, ‘Pitter Patter,’ by Martha Sullivan is featured on the second edition of the Reading Ranger Story Trail at Long Hunter State Park.

Located near Couchville Lake, the story trail will be accessible daily during regular park hours from 7 a.m. until sunset until next spring.

The grand unveiling of the story trail, which will feature children’s activities and crafts, will be June 24 from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. at Area 2 near Couchville Lake inside the park.

For more information about Long Hunter State Park, visit tnstateparks.com/parks/about/long-hunter. To learn more about the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation, visit governorsfoundation.org.

Staff Reports

Schools plan classes on day of solar eclipse

Teachers already planning for rare event in Wilson County

Wilson County Schools and Lebanon Special School District officials have made plans to hold classes Aug. 21, when the area is expected to be the center of a national frenzy with a total solar eclipse.

“We will be in school that day, but it will be a learning experience. It will be a day planned around that, because there’s so much you can do with the eclipse looking at literature, math and science. We’ve already ordered 19,000 pieces of special glasses,” said Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright.

Lebanon Director of Schools Scott Benson said he’s had conversations with Wilson County Schools officials, along with Wilson Emergency Management Agency officials, and schools will be open for the eclipse. Benson said he had a meeting with principals this week, and some schools already started preparing for the event.

“We are going to take advantage of the great learning opportunity that comes with the eclipse,” Benson said.

NASA ambassador Theo Wellington addressed the solar eclipse with the Wilson County Commission earlier this year and said in August, the state will see its first total solar eclipse since 1869.

“If they’re home with families, that should be a wonderful thing, and I hope the schools will please bless all the absences. But if they don’t have a place to be, at school is going to be the best place for them to be where they can have a guided, safe experience,” said Wellington, who told the story of a teenager in India who rejected instructions and chose to stare at the eclipse.

“The doctor told him he had a cute little crescent-shaped scar on the back of his retina. Your retina does not have any pain receptors. You don’t know when you’re doing it damage. That will be the subject of many safety talks,” she said.

Wellington said half of the U.S. population is within a one day’s drive to the total solar eclipse path, which means areas along the path, such as Wilson County, will experience an influx of visitors.

Wellington said the total eclipse path is important, because it’s the path in which a total eclipse is visible. Other areas will only experience a partial eclipse, which doesn’t bring darkness.

“It’s a nationwide event. Everybody will see part of the sun covered up that day, but only those in the 70-mile wide path get to see the total eclipse,” said Wellington, who said the eclipse causes a night and day difference.

Wellington said the maximum amount of time the total eclipse can be viewed is two minutes and 40 seconds.

“The Wilson County [Fairgrounds] is only two seconds off the longest time,” she said.

By Xavier Smith


Fire and ice theme adds sparkle to Phoenix Ball

Bailey Wrenne • Mt. Juliet News
One of the premier charity events in Tennessee, the 34th annual Phoenix Ball black tie gala to benefit Cumberland University was attended Saturday evening by hundreds of prominent Middle Tennesseans and their guests and raised thousands of dollars for scholarships and other programs of the university. The theme was fire and ice.

The 34th Phoenix Ball on Saturday to benefit Cumberland University has come and gone, leaving memories of flickering flames, sparkling snowflakes and wonderful fun.

The entire interior of the Dallas Floyd Gymnasium on the Cumberland campus was wrapped in shimmering white fabric while icy blue lights reflected off it. High above in the center of the room, a snow-making machine blew a shower of artificial flakes every few minutes that glittered in the lights as they softly fluttered to the floor below

Tables accommodating 10 guests each sat ready to handle the 404 attendees. Centering each was a tall branch that sprouted several smaller limbs. These were painted a glistening white, hung with crystals and rhinestones representing ice cycles and “planted” in a tall cylinder covered in sparkly paper. The linens were silver as were the trays under each plate, and the dozens of pieces of silverware.  Between all that and several crystal glasses at each place setting, the lights couldn’t help but reflect, making everything seem to come alive.

The parade of the guests began at Baird Chapel where a bar was set up, hors d’oeuvres passed around and silent auction items made available for bidding. The party convened for dinner in the gym at 7:30 p.m. There followed a welcome and remarks by Cumberland president Paul Stumb. Stumb then introduced the Phoenix Ball committee chairs, and Scott Lawrence, former alumni board president, gave the invocation.

The five-course dinner opened with firecracker shrimp with watermelon salsa. The second course consisted of fried-green tomatoes with creamy sriracha sauce. A roasted beet salad made up the third course. The main course was presented, featuring a fork-tender filet mignon with bacon cream sauce, sweet potato au gratin and roasted asparagus. Dessert included white chocolate cinnamon mousse with fresh berries on the side.

Following dinner, Stumb introduced Jackie and Chuck Cowden who will play host to the 2017 Patrons’ Party, “Fire & Ice in Paradise,” on June 23. He then introduced Ray Hubner with Compass Auctions and Real Estate who handled the live auction.

Music and dancing by the Downtown Band followed closing remarks from Stumb. The band was in full swing.

By Bonnie Bucy

Living Writer

County schools deputy director set to retire

Xavier Smith • Mt. Juliet News
Retiring Wilson County Schools deputy director Mary Ann Sparks (right) shares a laugh with her daughter-in-law Courtnie Sparks and Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright during her retirement ceremony Friday at the central office. Sparks, who has been with the school system for 30 years, said she looks forward to spending time with family and traveling.

Mary Ann Sparks, current Wilson County Schools deputy director of human resources, has her eyes set on retirement as she will not return to central office in the fall.

Sparks has worked with the school system for 30 years with 10 years as the district’s human resources director.

“I don’t know if I’ll really feel it until school’s back in session, and I’m not here. The last 10 years I’ve been here and working in the summer, it’s our busiest time, because we’re hiring people,” Sparks said.

Sparks started her teaching career in 1975 in East Tennessee. She then stayed at home with her children for seven years before moving to Middle Tennessee and starting her career with Wilson County Schools as a second-grade teacher at Mt. Juliet Elementary School.

“Every once in awhile I still hear from one of them. I love it,” said Sparks, who said former students often share special stories with her.

Sparks said the district, along with the county, has grown drastically during her time working for the district, which she characterized with a story from her time at Mt. Juliet Elementary School.

“I would take my 28 students, and we would walk up to the library on the side of [Mt. Juliet Road]. There were no sidewalks. It was the old Mt. Juliet Elementary building where the Mt. Juliet Chamber of Commerce is now. We may have seen three cars. It was a two-lane road,” she said.

Sparks said she became human resources director after the district’s growth required the position to be full time.

“I always thought even before the position became available that I would enjoy doing it,” she said.

Sparks said her career aptitude tests often resulted in equal scores in nurturing and business.

“This combined those jobs, but there was definitely a learning curve,” said Sparks, who said she adapted with a lot of hard work, something instilled by her parents.

Sparks has emerged as a leader in human resource in the state, which Wright said increases the void she leaves upon retirement.

“She leaves a huge hole, because she’s been a strategic leader in human resources for the state. She’s one of those individuals that others look to for advisement. For us, that’s a huge hole to find someone with the experience, but also the human element that you either have or don’t. She has that,” Wright said.

Sparks said he retirement plans include spending time with her two grandchildren and family, traveling and volunteering in the community, along with picking up old hobbies like sewing.

She said she believed Wilson County, which she described as special, and the school district were headed in a good direction.

“I’ll miss the people, and I’ll miss being part of the school system,” Sparks said.

By Xavier Smith


Ahhaitty to be delegate at future doctors congress

Alyssia Ahhaitty, a rising 10th grader at Mt. Juliet High School, was named a delegate to the Congress of Future Medical Leaders on June 25-27 in Lowell, Mass.

The congress is an honors-only program for high school students who want to become physicians or go into medical research fields. The purpose of the event is to honor, inspire, motivate and direct the top students in the country, who aspire to be physicians or medical scientists, to stay true to their dream and, after the event, to provide a path, plan and resources to help them reach their goal.

Dr. Robert Darling, medical director of the National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists, nominated Ahhaitty to represent Tennessee based on her academic achievement, leadership potential and determination to serve humanity in the field of medicine.

During the three-day congress, Ahhaitty will join students from across the country and hear Nobel laureates and National Medal of Science winners talk about leading medical research, be given advice from Ivy League and top medical school deans on what to expect in medical school, witness stories told by patients who are living medical miracles, be inspired by fellow teen medical science prodigies and learn about cutting-edge advances and the future in medicine and medical technology.

“This is a crucial time in America when we need more doctors and medical scientists who are even better prepared for a future that is changing exponentially,” said Richard Rossi, executive director of the National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists. “Focused, bright and determined students like Alyssia Ahhaitty are our future, and she deserves all the mentoring and guidance we can give her.”

The academy offers free services and programs to students who want to be physicians or go into medical science. Some of the services and programs the academy offers are online social networks through which future doctors and medical scientists can communicate, opportunities for students to be guided and mentored by physicians and medical students and communications for parents and students on college acceptance and finances, skills acquisition, internships, career guidance and more.

The National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists was founded on the belief that prospective medical talent must be identified at the earliest possible age and help must be given to these students to acquire the necessary experience and skills to take them to the doorstep of this career. For more information, visit futuredocs.com.

Staff Reports

Schools OK field trip fees hike

School bus drivers to get paid more for driving during field trips

The Wilson County school board approved an increase to the district’s field trip fees Monday, a move that will benefit district drivers.

The change increases the amount charged to schools for athletic and field trips to make the payment for bus drivers closer to their regular pay. Wilson County Schools director Donna Wright said drivers currently receive $10 per hour for any trips beyond their contracted work or regular morning and bus routes.

Mickey Hall, Wilson County Schools deputy director, said the recommendation rose from conversations with bus drivers. He said the $20 figure came from making slight adjustment to the average pay for district drivers, which is $16 per hour.

Board member Bill Robinson amended Wright’s recommendation Monday of an increase to drivers’ pay to $20 an hour in favor of a smaller increase to $15 an hour after he cited concerns for the impact to smaller athletic programs last week.

“This is going to be a hammer lick to some of these programs,” Robinson said last week, adding he felt the change would not be worth the impact on athletic programs.

“I don’t think this is a part of the issue and I don’t think this is a part of the fix. I hate to have to burden these athletic programs with this because some of these programs don’t take in anything and have to be supported by the bigger programs,” he said.

Hall reiterated the charge would not only apply to athletic clubs and said the recommendation stemmed from conversations with bus drivers, which started earlier this year. He shared input from veteran Wilson County bus drivers during April’s board meeting.

Issues raised surrounding the district’s bus driver shortage included the split-shift format that drivers adhere to, along with a lack of respect from students and parents, inconsistency in handling reports of incidents and driver pay.

The district also gave an update to the report cards delay.

Wilson County Schools spokesperson Jennifer Johnson said in an email to parents May 20 the state vendor responsible for picking up the completed tests arrived several days later than scheduled despite the system meeting its required deadlines. 

Johnson said the raw scores were originally scheduled to arrive May 16 in Wilson County. She said TN Ready scores returned to the district Friday afternoon.

“While we had hoped to verify those scores, bring them into our system and calculate the final averages in time for report cards to be released [Tuesday], the process is taking a bit longer than expected. For that reason, we’ve decided to post report cards in stages,” Johnson said.

Report cards for children in Kindergarten through second grade will post to Skyward on Wednesday, according to Johnson. Paper copies of report cards for those students will be available after Thursday at schools during normal business hours.

Report cards for students in third through 12th grades will post to Skyward on Monday, June 12, and a paper copy will be available at schools after Tuesday, June 13.

Four schools currently under construction will have their pick up locations for paper copies of report cards changed to the following: Watertown High School for Tuckers Crossroads School and Watertown Elementary School; M.A.P. Academy for Southside Elementary School; and Wilson Central High School for Gladeville Elementary School.

By Xavier Smith


Independence’s Weiland named Lady Wildcats softball coach

Melissa Weiland

GLADEVILLE — Looking to restore stability to a program rocked by the sudden departure of its coach less than a year ago, Wilson Central principal Travis Mayfield chose someone he’s worked with in the past.

Melissa Weiland, head coach at Independence High School for the past three years, was announced as the Lady Wildcats softball coach Tuesday afternoon before a group of players, parents and faculty in the school’s small cafeteria.

Weiland, 33, came to the Thompson Station school in Williamson County while Mayfield was assistant principal there.

“The very first year there I thought she did an outstanding job,” said Mayfield, who returned to WCHS as principal the following year. “She has great relationships with the girls, and I’ve seen her display a real passion for coaching, working with those kids to get better and the strategy aspect of it and those kinds of things. I think she’s going to be a great fit.”

Weiland takes over for Shawn Smith, who assumed the position on an interim basis last summer following the firing, and subsequent resignation as math teacher, of Michael Shepard, who was eventually charged with two counts statutory rape by an authority figure. The Lady Wildcats won the state championship under Shepard two seasons ago and just finished a 24-16-1 season under Smith. Mayfield said he expects Weiland will bring stability to the program.

“I think she’s going to be here for the long haul,” Mayfield said. “She’s got a lot of integrity, a lot of loyalty, and I think it’ll be a long relationship.”

“I’m excited for the new opportunity, new adventure, new environment, a new staff,” Weiland said. “I’m just blessed and grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given by Mr. Mayfield.

“I can’t wait to meet the team and the new journey we’re about to go through.”

A former softball assistant coach at Riverdale and girls’ basketball assistant/freshman coach at Tullahoma, she went 14-16, 21-14, 15-16 at Independence. A Murfreesboro native and Riverdale graduate, she played basketball at Middle Tennessee State University until a knee injury ended her hoops career. She finished her college eligibility playing for the Lady Raiders. She was a catcher and third baseman.

Leigh McCutchen, an assistant coach at Siegel Middle School, was also introduced as Weiland’s assistant. Weiland, who will teach special education, said discussions will soon be underway concerning the remainder of her staff, including whether any assistants from Smith’s staff will remain.

As for the players, though there are five starters who are graduating, Weiland said there seems to be plenty of returning talent.

“I am extremely excited about the upcoming players,” she said. “From what I’ve seen, I think we’ll be OK.”

By: Andy Reed


Keller introduced as new Wilson Central girls basketball coach

Jake Old Mt. Juliet News
Jeff Keller speaks to Wilson Central High School basketball players and parents Thursday morning after he was introduced as the new head girls basketball coach. Keller previously coached high school and college basketball in Alabama.

GLADEVILLE – Jeff Keller, the new Wilson Central High School head girls basketball coach, was introduced to players and parents Thursday morning at the school.

Before coming to Wilson Central, Keller coached at both the high school and collegiate level in Alabama at Enterprise High School and the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Keller is an alumnus of David Lipscomb University.

“For me personally, it’s great to be back in Middle Tennessee,” Keller said. “This is really home to me.”

Keller said he is excited about being part of the basketball program at Wilson Central, and he will try to build on past success in the program.

“First of all, there’s a standard of excellence here, and that’s important to me,” Keller said. “Basketball is important here.”

Although he has not had the chance to work with any of the players yet, Keller said he has an idea of the kind of offense and defense he wants to use in the program.

“I’m a big believer in man-to-man defense,” Keller said. “On offense, it comes down to the players – I’ve got to see what we have … obviously, I like to push the basketball. If the numbers are there, we attack, and if the numbers aren’t there, we’re pulling it out. Half-court offense, after I see [the players] for a number of days, I’ll have a better idea of what we can do.”

For his coaching philosophies, Keller said he has tried to pull inspiration from several coaches he has worked with or studied. One coach in particular set out five qualities a team should have, passion, unity, humility, willingness to serve others and thankfulness. Keller wants his teams to have those qualities.

“I think there’s more to a basketball program than what’s on the floor,” Keller said. “I’m a firm believer in what you do off the floor affects you on the floor … I think those things are essential to have in a program.”

Keller said he remains in the high school coaching profession, because he enjoys it more than other levels of coaching he has experienced.

“I’ve been fortunate to coach at all different levels, middle school, high school and collegiate levels,” Keller said. “What I’ve found personally is I like the high school level the best, because I like interacting with students.”

Keller said he can’t wait to get out on the court and work with his team.

“This place has a lot of tradition, and what we’re wanting to do is just continue that standard of excellence, continue to build on things that have been done in the past,” Keller said. “I’m very, very excited to be here.”

By: Jake Old


Mercante falls short of state tennis title

Andy Reed Mt. Juliet News
Wilson Central sophomore Michael Mercante faces defending state champ and University of Alabama signee Sam Fischer in the Thursday afternoon session for a spot in the state finals.

MURFREESBORO – Wilson Central sophomore Michael Mercante’s opening day of the Class AAA singles state tournament at the Adams Tennis Center was a bit peculiar.

Mercante received a walkover into the semifinals as Siegel sophomore Husain Al-Zubaidi failed to show due to an illness. This pitted Mercante against defending champion and University of Alabama signee Sam Fischer in the Thursday afternoon session for a spot in the finals.

Though Mercante fought valiantly, Fischer’s strong serve and forehand dominated play as the senior scored a 6-0, 6-0 win.

Fischer went on to claim his second consecutive championship, defeating Tennessee High School’s Stone Cozart 6-4, 6-4.

“I thought it was a great opportunity because I knew he was a great player, and that he was going to a great college to play,” Mercante said. “He hit the ball really well. I’ve played other kids who hit the ball hard and with spin, just not as consistently as he can.”

Mercante completed the most successful individual season in Wilson Central tennis history as he went 18-3 in singles matches, and became the second Wildcat in the program’s history to claim the District 9-AAA singles championship. Tyler Pullen did it in 2003.

The sophomore also became the first Wildcat to reach the state tournament by claiming the Region 5-AAA singles title.

“It was a great season for Michael, and to get to this point is great for him and does a lot of our program as a whole,” said first-year Wilson Central coach Ryan Jent. “Since he’s went on this postseason run, the amount of people who have come to me talking about how great of a kid that Michael is speaks volumes about him.”

Mercante said, “I thought I had a really good season. One thing I improved on was my mental game over last season, which helped get me here. I’m already ready for next season to get started.”

Staff Reports

Mt. Juliet’s Shea vaults to state championship

Mt. Juliet junior Cole Shea won the Class AAA state pole vault championship Thursday afternoon at Middle Tennessee State’s Dean A. Hayes Stadium.

Shea’s vault of 14-6 was 6 inches better than Brentwood freshman Jeff Kinder.

Mt. Juliet’s Brandon Karain finished 12th in the Class AAA state 110-meter hurdles Friday with a time of 15.88. The Wilson Central team of Nathan Peterson, Joel Barlow,Baylor Franklin and Russell Riggan finished fifth in the Class AAA state 4-by-800-meter relay Friday with a time of 8:08.09.

Other than the pole vault, Thursday belonged to the girls.

Wilson Central freshman Zoe Vlk was fourth in the AAA discus with a toss of 120-9.

Mt. Juliet sophomore Julia Karsten was sixth in the 800-meter run in 2:23.16. Lebanon junior Ashley Grimes was seventh in the 300 hurdles in :46.97.

Watertown senior Mya Huddleston, her school’s first state qualifier, was eighth in the A-AA shot put with a toss of 32-4.75.

By: Andy Reed


Mt. Juliet duo falls to defending champs in final

Mt. Juliet graduates Dylan Chambers and Josh Walker finished their senior seasons as second in Class AAA boys’ doubles after running into Tennessee’s buzzsaw of Jacob Marshall and Charlie Moseley, who claimed another state championship 6-1, 6-0 Friday morning at Old Fort Park.

Neighbors for over a decade, they’ve been doubles partners throughout their high school careers. They’ve played with and against each other since they were 7.

“We’ve played against each other in tournaments before, but we decided to focus on doubles, and that’s been our primary focus all four years in high school at Mt. Juliet,” Chambers said.

“He’s like a brother to me,” Walker said.

By: Andy Reed