Ellis spends 39 years with Carter County schools

Photo By Rick Harris
Dr. Shirley Ellis, director of federal programs for the Carter County School System and a system employee for nearly 40 years, hugs her four legged friend, Brisco, who attended a recent reception held in honor of Ellis at the Carter County Board of Education Offices.

By Lesley Hughes
star staff

  Dr. Shirley Ellis has educated herself and others for close to 40 years. One might say she is obsessed with education, but, truthfully, she believes everyone, including herself, continues to learn each day.
  Ellis was recently recognized as Supervisor of the Year at the Third Annual Tennessee Educational Leadership Conference at the Nashville Convention Center for her success as Supervisor of Federal Projects and Testing.
  For the past 39 years, Ellis has spent countless hours educating students, prospective teachers, and herself. But if asked as a teenager what she wanted to do with her life, she would have given an answer totally different than becoming an award-winning educator. She wanted to be a medical doctor.
  Ellis recalled an opportunity during fifth grade when her teacher allowed her to tutor some fifth and sixth-grade students having trouble with reading. "At that time I knew that, because of my efforts, that I had helped some of those students to begin to read. I truly enjoyed that."
  As a graduate of Hampton High School, Ellis knew her only chance to get an education was to pay the $56 tuition per quarter at East Tennessee State University. Working for $.50 per hour at Gurney Burger in Hampton provided Ellis with just enough money for tuition.
  She often did without books for her classes and, instead, opted to study the library copy of the classroom edition. "If I saved all of my $.50 earnings, I would have enough for tuition. I learned very early that I had to listen when I was in the classroom."
  As a 20 year-old graduate from ETSU with a bachelor's degree in physical education, Ellis soon found work at Hampton Elementary School. She has since taught nearly every grade level at every school in the eastern side of the county: Hampton Elementary, Cloudland Elementary, Hampton High School, Valley Forge Elementary, and Little Milligan Elementary.
  After completing her master's degree in Elementary Education in 1970, Ellis served as supervising principal at Little Milligan Elementary School from 1985-1987 before becoming principal of Hampton High School during the 1987-1988 school year.
  During her time at Hampton High, Ellis was named Tennessee High School Principal of the Year. She is known for improving the bathroom facilities in the school. "We had an Adopt-A-Bathroom program. That may bring a smile to people's faces. The atmosphere is very important to learning. I had different clubs to adopt different bathrooms, and it was their responsibility to keep them up. They were given choices. They could choose what colors they wanted and what they wanted to put on the walls. I would buy the materials out of the general fund, but it was up to the students to do the painting and the up keep. It was their responsibility.
  "In 1987-1994, high school students were begging for responsibility, and I feel that they are still doing that today. It was a successful program. If you went to Hampton High School today, you would see a lot of remnants of that. Some of the bathrooms still have Home Interior (decor) on the walls. Many of them have curtains on the windows.
  "I always said that I wanted to be someone in education that contributed to the teachers and students. I don't think I thought about being famous for bathrooms. But if that's what it takes then that is good," Ellis said.
  Ellis is now responsible for overseeing all testing programs in the county school system. She takes rigorous precautions and safety measures to ensure the tests arrive at the schools and are returned properly, according to standards set by the state of Tennessee.
  She is also system homeless coordinator. Carter County does not receive federal funds for these students because the number of homeless students is not high enough. "But we are still obligated to do everything in our power to help homeless children," Ellis said.
  Homeless students are put on free lunch immediately and then other measures are taken to help the family. The occurrence of homeless students in Carter County isn't very common; only three were reported during the past academic year. Some situations that might cause a family to become homeless are a home destroyed by fire, parents and children moving in with other family members for financial reasons; mothers escaping an abusive relationship; even children arriving from other locations through a court system's witness protection program.
  Ellis said any temporary solution for shelter can be considered homelessness. For example, a family moving in with another family member only until the family can find a permanent place can possibly be deemed homeless. In any case, the child registered in school immediately if he/she is new to the area. Assistant Director Elizabeth Banks works to obtain clothing and shelter for the family through training she has received.
  Besides her work with the school system, Ellis has taught at Tusculum College and East Tennessee State University in master's level courses as an adjunct professor. She also works with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools on the Council on Accreditation and School Improvement. "By serving on this statewide council, it really keeps me up to date. I have a choice and I get to vote on a lot of things." She has also served on the advisory council for the Elizabethton Campus of Northeast State Technical College.
  During her free time she said she "truly enjoys walking at the Hampton High School track." Ellis added, "I try to get there as many nights as I possibly can after work. I read a tremendous amount of historical fiction novels. My favorite era is the Civil War period."
  Her husband, Wayne Ellis, has been retired for two years. Her son and daughter-in-law are also involved in education. Wayne Ellis II teaches social studies at Hampton High School and coaches the freshman basketball team and the golf team. Daughter-in-law Jennifer Ellis is a counselor with the school system.
  Ellis's special friend and four legged companion, Brisco Darling Ellis, waits for her each night at the steps of the their split-level home. When she pulls into the garage, seven-year-old Brisco barks until she enters the door. "My special, special friend is my dog. I look forward to seeing him every night. He is a great companion. He really is. I have never had my own personal pet. He is special to me."
  This December will mark 40 years on the job with the Carter County School System, but Ellis is secure in her decision about retirement - she's not going to - yet.
  "During the past year and even the year before there have been times that I have thought about retiring. It was probably during the times when I didn't know where the next minute was going to come from. At this point in time, I am not ready to retire. I feel like I have worked even harder today than I ever have before. I am involved in more than I ever was before. I am happy and that is the most important thing," she said.