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Alvin C. York Institute Makes the Grade in School Uplift Pilot Program

Aging, rural schools dot the Tennessee Valley, but Alvin C. York Institute stands out. It is one of the only secondary schools in the country run by a state government and boasts the biggest campus at over 400 acres. The 95-year-old school was founded by Tennessee native Alvin York, a decorated World War I soldier. Current assistant principal and director of operations Derwin Wright will jokingly say that some days it feels like he’s been there that long.

“I'm over attendance, discipline, facilities, transportation and school safety,” says Wright. “So, I'm pulled in many directions at times.”

The aging buildings don’t run as efficiently as they once did, so the school’s utility costs have been rising over the years. It’s a problem many under-resourced schools are facing.

“Many districts have tight budgets, so we’re looking for any way to save money,” says Wright.

York Institute was invited to join 10 other schools for TVA EnergyRight’s School Uplift pilot in February 2020. The 12-month program involved training school administrators and faculty in strategic energy management, a framework that empowers an organization to implement energy management actions and processes to achieve energy performance improvements. This helps schools save energy and money so they can maximize resources where it matters most: educating children.

“EnergyRight’s mission is to partner with local power companies to transform lives and communities with industry-leading energy services and programs,” says Cindy Herron, vice president of TVA’s EnergyRight program. “Helping schools save money on their energy costs and improve learning environments is an important investment in the Valley’s future.”

Derwin, a former teacher and coach, liked how the program was laid out.

“I’ve been a football coach all my life, so it’s kind of like somebody coming in and looking at your practice and saying, ‘Hey, you’re wasting time here. You can get more reps over here.’ So, I looked at it from that viewpoint.”

Business and Industry program manager Clay Hoover and a team from TVA EnergyRight and local power company partners led school administrators through the training and supported them with monthly check-ins. Participating schools included:

  • Bledsoe County High School, Bledsoe County
  • Pikeville Elementary School, Bledsoe County
  • Alvin C. York Institute, Fentress County
  • Pine Haven Elementary, Fentress County
  • South Fentress Elementary, Fentress County
  • Coalfield Elementary, Morgan County
  • Sunbright Elementary, Morgan County
  • Pickett County K-8, Pickett County
  • Pickett County High School, Pickett County
  • Spencer Elementary, Van Buren County
  • Van Buren County High School, Van Buren County

The EnergyRight team helped schools identify areas in their buildings that were losing energy and, ultimately, money. The group met regularly to discuss their pain points but also share their successes. But they also competed against each other to achieve energy-saving milestones with York being the first to complete all of them. Several participants received grants for energy upgrades and solar pavilions.*

For Wright, it was all about changing behaviors.

“Many teachers have a refrigerator in their classroom because they spend almost half of their time in the classroom,” says Wright. “But think about the savings over the summer, winter and spring break if we just shut those items down. Having awareness of the energy we’re wasting has influenced behavior.”

Wright also made adjustments to automatic timers placed on equipment and lighting, and he has created a multi-year plan to replace current lighting with LED bulbs.

TVA is investing $7.3 million in School Uplift over the next three years to help 160 schools in seven states. The state of Tennessee’s Energy Efficient Schools Initiative is partnering with TVA and has provided an initial $600,000 in matching funds.

To learn how School Uplift supports our region’s schools, visit

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