|A Tennessee school finds breathing room at the speedway.|
When Deborah Nottingham began teaching math at Sullivan East High School this past August, she thought she was settling in for the year. But less than two months later, she and her colleagues—and their 1,000 students—were told to stay home because health concerns at the facility had administrators racing to find new digs.
It was a combination of community solidarity and good timing that got the kids back to school a week later. They might have complained about the abrupt end to their impromptu vacation but for the novelty of attending classes at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Principal Mary Rouse discovered in early October that the Bluff City, Tennessee, high school had fallen prey to stachybotrys, a toxic black mold that causes allergic reactions, including headaches, skin rash, and asthma. When Jeff Byrd, general manager of the racetrack, offered the use of its luxury sky boxes to Sullivan East for free, the school board voted unanimously to accept the offer.
“The majority of us had never even been inside these suites,” said Rouse, who rode around the track in a race car during the students’ second week there. “The fact that you’re having a class in these nice, cushioned, plush seats—you’re just in awe.”
By all accounts, speedway schooling wasn’t free of challenges. “We’re having to be very creative in how we teach,” said Nottingham . “We have the big windows in front, so there are some distractions. We’re having to watch the kids a whole lot more here.”
But the facility also provided unique opportunities. Using the track’s curved, 36-degree banks as inspiration, Nottingham created algebra problems for her kids to solve. And vocational ed students studied blueprints of the racetrack and welded some of its light fixtures.
Though its relocation solution was unique, the mold problems Sullivan East experienced weren’t. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of the country’s 115,000 public schools have poor air quality. In a number of cases, the problem is black mold, which grows in wet or humid areas and often demands that facilities be sealed off, sometimes permanently.
The kids of “B.M.S. High” used about 70 of the speedway’s 100- plus sky boxes until Sullivan East reopened in mid-November. Before the school year finishes, they’re expected to make at least one trip back: Each student was given two free tickets to the NASCAR Busch Series race in March.