Ringstaff, director of the school system, said schools were facing issues ranging from the economic backgrounds of students to the fact that an increasing number of them are learning English as a second language.
He said the Cleveland and Bradley County area had “two of the strongest school systems going in the state of Tennessee” and said up front that, overall, he was happy with how the system was working to meet the needs of students. However, he said teachers have been facing some challenges as they work to teach students what the need to know.
The first issue he touched upon was the economic backgrounds of some students. He said 62.1 percent of all students in the school system were eligible to receive free or reduced lunches, slightly more than the Bradley County school system’s 56.3 percent.
While economic background does not mean a child cannot learn well, Ringstaff said children living in poverty are often less prepared for school when they enter kindergarten. He said that meant that, even from the very beginning, teachers had to be aware that their students’ backgrounds affected what they knew before they started class.
Another issue, he said, was the increasing number of students in the school system.
“With growth comes all other kinds of issues,” Ringstaff said.
One such issue was the differences between the number of students school buildings were built for and the number of students who need to attend the schools. He gave specific examples of how some schools were overcrowded, including Mayfield Elementary School. Mayfield, the Cleveland school that was most recently built, was designed for 450 students. Ringstaff said that, by this fall, the school will be 144 students over capacity.
“We’re over capacity in every building,” he said.
Ringstaff said the school system is working to remedy the situation by working toward the construction of a new elementary school. In addition, he said schools will be looking at other ways to make the most of space, including cutting down the number of computer labs in some schools in favor of students using devices like tablet computers instead.
The overall growth in the number of students has also brought growth in the number of students learning English as a second language. Ringstaff said there were 237 such students in the school system in 2010. Today, there are 364.
Ringstaff added that, while there has been a lot of discussion about Common Core standards as of late, teachers have been introducing them in city schools since 2008. He said they were similar to the academic standards students have always been held to but were “cleaner” in how they were explained.
“They’re just written better,” he said. “We’re preparing students to go do something better when they leave us.”
With it being Teacher Appreciation Week, he shared his thankfulness for the efforts teachers have been making to help students learn. He gave the example of an English as a second language student struggling on standardized tests. He said the most important thing a teacher can do is not to force students to do well on tests but to get them excited about learning so they can improve.
“It is very important for our teachers to understand we’re backing them,” Ringstaff said.
Also during the meeting, Rotarian Alvin Word decided to honor his wife, Melissa, by making her a Paul Harris Fellow. He chose to recognize Melissa, a local teacher, during Teacher Appreciation Week. Rotarians receive the Paul Harris Fellowship for their financial contributions to the Rotary organization.