The event was a “Community Conversation” for educators in Southeast Tennessee hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, and took place in the basement of the chapel at Lee University. SCORE is a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist that advocates for education in Tennessee, working both with the state department of education and local educators. The event consisted of both panel and small group discussions with school superintendents, principals and teachers.
A few of the educators had positive things to say.
“Some of my colleagues are really working hard as a region,” said Rick Smith, superintendent of the Hamilton County school system. “The Southeast region is really being looked at across the state as a leader.”
But many also addressed changes they felt needed to be made.
Dr. Sharon Harper, executive director of the Southeast Center of Regional Excellence with the state department of education, presented the panel with some of SCORE’s latest statistics about math and reading proficiency.
Some 234,193 students in the state were not proficient in math in 2012, and 222,262 were not proficient in reading and language arts. There were more than 19,000 students underperforming in each category in the Southeast region alone, she said.
A major part of the event was also spent discussing how educators can best prepare students for college. According to SCORE, “only 16 percent of students in Tennessee are college-ready at a time when 7 of the 10 fastest growing occupations in the state require education after high school.”
According to “The State of Education in Tennessee” annual report put out by SCORE, the average ACT score for Tennessee was 19.2, compared to a national average of 21.1.
The state’s high school graduation rate rose by nearly 2 percent in a year’s time, from 85.5 percent graduating in 2011 to 87.2 percent in 2012.
Despite the improvements, Harper said she was still unimpressed. With every graduation rate below 100 percent, she said, there are students not graduating. She stressed the importance of educators doing whatever they can to improve graduation rates.
“To me, these numbers are unacceptable,” Harper said.
Locally, the superintendents of both Cleveland and Bradley County school systems said graduation rates were a major priority for their schools. Both superintendents mentioned dual enrollment and other programs meant to encourage success in high school and the possibility of college attendance, but both also said the attention shouldn’t be focused solely on high school education. The idea was that a student’s performance in elementary and middle school shaped how they would do in high school.
“You start on graduation rate early on,” said Johnny McDaniel, Bradley County school superintendent.
Common Core is a set of new standards being phased into Tennessee public school curriculums. It focuses on standardizing math and language arts education statewide.
The superintendents from Marion and Polk Counties both expressed frustration at a lack of resources available in their schools to implement things like online testing, and both said their schools needed more time to implement the new standards.
But others said their schools were ready to tackle the challenge of revamping how math and language arts are taught and tested.
“Our focus is on Common Core,” said Dr. Martin Ringstaff, Cleveland City Schools superintendent. “If we fail up front, we know where we’re going.”
Multiple panelists said they hoped the new standards would eventually help students be better prepared for college.
Dr. Patricia Jones, dean of the education department at Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens, said many of the college’s freshmen have arrived unprepared for college-level courses. She said students take placement tests upon admission and that 32-35 percent on average have to take remedial math and English courses before they can proceed with required freshman-level courses.
Jones said the key is to focus on educating teachers so they can in turn make sure their students have the math, reading and writing skills they need.
“Even if they don’t go the college route, it’s going to help them in the long run,” Jones said.
After the panel discussion, everyone broke up into small groups to discuss questions asking about improvements over the past year and the challenges that exist with preparing students for college. Answers to both questions were meant to benefit the educators and help SCORE compile information about the region.
Walker Valley High School Principal Danny Coggin said he attended the event because he wanted to see improvements in the education system. He said educators in the region have not had chances to discuss what is going on in their school systems with each other as often as he would have liked. However, he said any conversation was beneficial because he believed the success of the region depended on the education students receive by the time they finish school.
“We need the people of Cleveland to know education is the key,” Coggin said.