November 9, 2015

Knox Schools

The origins of Knox County School District’s (Knox Schools) craft training program go back to the 1940s, when the City of Knoxville started apprenticeships in its high schools to help World War II veterans gain employment. Knox County is located in east Tennessee, with Knoxville being the county seat and largest city. With a total of 89 schools, the district has more than 59,000 students as well as 8,000 teachers and staff. Knox Schools has been using NCCER curricula for more than 15 years and is an NCCER Accredited Training Sponsor.

Today, the district helps young people prepare for rewarding craft careers while growing the local construction workforce at the same time. Boasting a number of unique fundraising and promotional events, Knox Schools’ career and technical education (CTE) program is proving to be a model for other districts across the country.

Industry-Led Craft Training

According to Buck Coatney, the district’s work-based learning coordinator, Knox Schools began using NCCER curricula for its craft training programs at the request of local industry representatives. Currently, the district offers NCCER training in Carpentry, Electrical, HVAC, Plumbing, Sheet Metal, Pipefitting and Welding.

“Having the NCCER accreditation brings a lot of credibility to our program,” said Coatney. “Hands down, NCCER offers the best curriculum on the market, and we’ve been using it since 2000.”

Knox Schools’ craft training program lasts two years and is offered in 10 of the district’s 14 high schools. More than 2,000 students enroll in the program each year. Craft training is delivered by more than 42 NCCER-certified instructors employed by Knox Schools. Additionally, many local contractors use the district’s facilities to send their employees to complete the academic portion of their four-year apprenticeship training.

Knox Schools’ students take the NCCER Core curriculum, along with three construction classes specific to their chosen craft, which gives them a significant jump-start on their careers once they graduate and become employed.

“Graduates can enter into their professional apprenticeships in the second year because we teach the exact same curriculum,” said Coatney. “The Tennessee Department of Labor allows our graduates to be exempt from first-year apprenticeships, providing the contractor who hires them is onboard.”

Setting the Stage

To move beyond the classroom and foster real and direct engagement with industry, Knox Schools runs an ambitious and innovative program that places students in real-world situations through a talent competition modeled after “American Idol” known as CTE Goes Live. CTE Goes Live partners with local businesses to coordinate and fund the district’s workforce training efforts, and at the same time, it showcases the value of such training to the community.

Held annually each May at Market Square in downtown Knoxville, CTE Goes Live features one contestant from every high school in the district, and each of these students performs a song live on stage in front of a large audience. The winner is chosen through text voting, and the grand prize is a recording session in a professional studio in Nashville.

To organize and run the event, CTE students are assigned specific tasks based on their fields of study. For example, carpentry students build the contest stage, electricians manage the lighting and wiring and marketing students help promote the show.

“We’re trying to make it as real-life as possible, so the students see how the skills they are learning translate to their future careers,” said Coatney.

Additionally, each of the high schools has a tent set up at the event displaying the CTE programs offered. Because CTE Goes Live is so popular, attracting up to 10,000 attendees, the show is the ideal vehicle to demonstrate just how exciting and rewarding Knox Schools’ CTE program is.

Industry Collaboration

In addition to allowing students to apply what they learn in class to the real world, the production also encourages industry members to contribute resources relevant to their craft areas, such as contractors donating lumber to help build the stage. By meeting the needs of the competition, contractors are able to build rapport with participating CTE students and effectively advertise their company.

Coatney stresses the importance of building individual relationships with industry members. “You have to develop the relationship,” said Coatney. “It’s easy because everyone is working together toward the same goal; they all need employees and we need to fund our program.”

Coatney, who was a high school football coach for 24 years in Knoxville, takes a very practical approach to fundraising and garnering industry support. Coatney believes in the power of face- to-face meetings and will walk into a new office and talk to the highest person available on the organizational chart to make his pitch; a pitch that illustrates the clear benefits of industry- education collaboration.


Knox Schools and CTE Goes Live have been wildly successful. More than 50 industry partners have signed on as contributors to Knox Schools’ CTE programs, and the results are remarkable. More than 2,000 students have received NCCER Core wallet cards since the program began and over 40 graduates are currently employed in their chosen craft areas. In addition, Knox Schools’ CTE students have a graduation rate over 90 percent.