With graduation ceremonies over at Maryville High School, Jordis Blackburn has closed that chapter in her life and will be moving on as a freshman this fall at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

But before her exit, this new graduate had one more gathering, this one with fellow classmates who got their educational foundation at the now-closed Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning. Blackburn and close to 100 others recently attended a breakfast at MHS for former students, their families and also staff of Fort Craig, which opened in 1995 and closed in 2012. The building now houses the Blount County Boys and Girls Club on Washington Street in Maryville.

It was Blackburn who was the student of the morning, as she is the 2019 recipient of the Fort Craig Scholarship. It has been given annually to a student who attended Fort Craig. Last year’s winner was Erica Snell.

Blackburn caught up with friends, reconnected with teachers and viewed photographs from her days at the elementary school. She attended Fort Craig from kindergarten through fourth grade.

Road map to success

Fort Craig was unlike any other school in this community, It was year-round at a time when none others had gone that route. Families were selected to attend based on a lottery system. The teaching curriculum, based on life skills and community involvement, was innovative. Blackburn said she will always remember the family gatherings that were held every Friday in the gymnasium. Parents and other family members were invited to come share in various programs.

“We had so many fun activities,” Blackburn recalled. “There was dancing on the stage as we learned our life guidelines. Sometimes there was a play. It was a great time.”

Despite Fort Craig being closed nine years ago, this MHS graduate said what she learned there truly has shaped who she’s become.

“We were taught and still know those guidelines for life,” she said. “We were taught to be friends with each other, to be creative and explore new things. That is what got me to where I am.”

When she enters UT, Blackburn will study biomedical engineering. She said she loves the idea of woking in the medical field, where technology and its possibilities are so exciting. While at MHS, Blackburn immersed herself in numerous activities, including Key Club, leader of Trick or Cans, Girl Scouts and the MHS orchestra.

“I have been a Girl Scout for 13 years,” Blackburn said. “That’s another thing I did because of Fort Craig. I joined Scouts.”

When asked about former teachers, many of whom were there at the breakfast, Blackburn mentioned Sharon Kyker as one of her favorites.

Kyker taught at Fort Craig from 1995 to 2012 — the entire time it was open. She had a total of 40 years in teaching when she chose to retire. “When Fort Craig closed, it was a good time to do that,” she said.

She said the breakfast was a great opportunity to stir up good memories of those years. She remembers Blackburn as a shy child who came into her own.

“The first program we did at Fort Craig, the kids had to get up on stage,” Kyker remembered. “(Blackburn) had stage fright to the point she was curled up in the corner near the stairs. She wasn’t even going to go up the stairs. We said ‘That’s OK.’ By the end, she was up on stage.”

Kyler said, back then, she gave Blackburn an angel coin, which she carried in her pocket. Today, Blackburn is a take-charge person who stands before her church congregation and has no reservations about speaking, her former teacher said.

The experience at Fort Craig, the teacher said, was just as rewarding for the staff as it was for students. Kyker said they, as teachers, were encouraged to step outside the box. That’s hard for teachers to do these days, she explained.

“The kids that went there had a really good foundation of knowing character and how to be good citizens and knowing what is important,” Kyker said. “They were taught to express themselves and have the confidence to be who they are and to be thinkers. You wanted them to be thinkers and not just fit into a mold.”

Dani Rose Thibus was a teaching intern at Fort Craig. She observed Kyker and the students in action. Kyker called and invited her to the Friday breakfast.

“The sense of community at that school is not something you can ever forget,” Thibus said. “It’s all these years later and these kids are willing to come and hang out together.”

Thibus is now the media coordinator for the Early Learning Center at UT.

Also in the crowd Friday morning was Pete Carter, who served as Fort Craig principal. He attends this celebration every year.

“This is one of my favorite days of the year,” he said. “The Fort Craig connection is strong.”

Carter now serves as executive director of Leadership Blount. He said leadership is one of the traits he sees in these students who already are making their marks on this community.

“It’s fun to come and see them all grown up and find out what they are going to be doing now. They are impressive,” he said.

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