Two groups of young Blount Countians last week were rewarded for exceptional achievement. The recognitions did not come easy. The goals were not accomplished without help. But it was their individual effort that made these 15 students worthy of honoring.

They share a common trait to be admired — the determination to conquer a challenge despite daunting odds. They inspire the rest of us. Just do it? Easy for us to say. These kids did it.

Five students from William Blount and Heritage high schools were honored at the Chilhowee Club for participating in the Project SEARCH school-to-work transition program and for graduating to paying jobs.

It marked the third consecutive year that all Blount County Schools students who participated in the program got jobs. Not only that, the dozen students who participated in the program in 2016 and 2017 still are working for pay.

That’s nice, you might say. Which is true. But the achievement of these students and their teachers is far more than that. These young people have developmental disabilities. Some have difficulty even making eye contact. Imagine the challenge in the workplace. Imagine the self-confidence required to make it in a world where we’re all different, and they feel even more so.

Amanda Vance, Blount County Schools supervisor of special education, laid it out in clear language any employer can appreciate. “Our students with disabilities are wonderful employees.”

How so? “They show up for work, they’re positive, and they get their work done.”

Yes! Any employer would wish for that of any employee, and these young people do it with pride.

Then you have the Turnaround kids, 10 other young achievers who could have been left to wander the halls of academia with little direction. Some couldn’t even make it to school, much less to work. If they managed to get to class, it might be just in time to learn they’d been kicked off a team or reassigned to an alternative school.

They were different in different ways. Arrogant? Maybe. Troubled? Could be. A pain in the butt for their peers? Probably. A worry for those who offered them love — as hard as that might be to give at times? Most definitely.

Then something happened. Some combination of actions by those who believed in them — family, teachers, friends, counselors — anyone who could see potential in a young person struggling from within, made a difference. From a disheartening destiny of failure emerged a promise of future success.

On Friday at the Capitol Theatre, 10 students from schools in the Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County districts received Turnaround Achievement Awards.

The awards recognized the contribution that young people who turned their lives around can make. They surprised adults who would have had their doubts, if they only knew. Such as the case of a teacher who learned that an uneasy student of hers had faced challenges she was never aware of — wearing leg braces in sixth grade and being non-verbal until age 5.

Or the teacher who never would have allowed an out-of-state transfer into his science class if he had known the student’s GPA. Recently, on one of the toughest tests in an anatomy and physiology class, where the average score was 80, the student scored a 96.

As the teacher said, if he had denied that student entry into his class, the educator would “have missed out on a crazy good kid.” More than that. “This young man made me a better person.”

Turnaround achievement and school-to-work transition — more reasons to support public education, one system, one school, one student at a time.

There are more crazy good kids in Blount County than we can count. Let’s give them a chance, let ’em know they really do count. We’ll all be the better for it.

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