New year, new challenges

Road to educational excellence likely to be rocky for school leaders

Parents and students are likely preparing for a new school year by shopping for the perfect back pack, the right tennis shoes and coolest locker mates.

The heads of Blount’s three school systems, however, are looking at a year where one of their biggest challenges is likely to be keeping parents encouraged and informed in a changing educational environment.

Students who started as freshmen in the 2009-10 academic year begin their second year under the higher requirements for graduation and higher expectations of the Tennessee Diploma Project. The TDP is intended to better prepare students to compete for jobs or to excel in college. The requirements mean students who are now beginning their sophomore year must earn more credits in core curriculum in order to graduate. Added to the Tennessee Diploma Project are new ways to measure teacher and school effectiveness, adopted in a special session last January as part of the state’s efforts to qualify for federal Race to the Top funds.

In other words, an “A” is not what it used to be and proficiency is being measured by a tougher standard, for both teachers, schools and students.

In light of this, school directors in Blount County are stressing that principals and assistant principals - rookies and the veterans alike - must show leadership and the ability to communicate both with students and parents.

“We’ll have to do a good job of articulating to parents and the community why these new changes are a good thing for our students and their futures,” Blount County schools director Rob Britt said. “We want our students to be prepared to meet challenges of the 21st century.”

Maryville City Schools director Stephanie Thompson said with the new standards, new tests were administered this spring.

“Because of these new standards and tests, we are going to find more of our students are going to drop in their performance levels from where they had been performing in years past,” she said. “Parents may get response back from the TCAP tests and find their student went from ‘Advanced’ to ‘Proficient.’”

Alcoa City Schools Tom Shamblin said principals don’t want parents to be surprised if the results come back with scores lower than they used to be. “We are kind of expecting a drop in scores, so we’re educating the public and asking them not to panic,” he said. “It will just take time to fill those gaps student have, and it won’t happen over night. It will be a challenging process, but we think our staff is up to it.”

The administrative teams at the three Alcoa City Schools remained the same for the new year. In the Maryville and Blount County school systems, several new assistant principals and principals will be on hand for the new school year.

At Maryville Intermediate School, Kevin Myers is taking Jan Click’s place as principal. Myers was a technology teacher at Maryville Middle School. Click is retired but will work part-time in the Central Office on Race to the Top initiatives to mentor teachers and train potential teacher leaders and principals.

At Maryville High School, Maelea Galyon is a new assistant principal. Galyon was a teacher at the school.

At Maryville Middle School, Keith Wilson, formerly an assistant principal at Bearden Middle School, will be assistant principal. He replaces Steve Dockery who retired.

At John Sevier Elementary, Ginny Boles is a new assistant principal. Boles had been a teacher at John Sevier Elementary.

In Blount County, Britt said several changes will be seen throughout the system.

At Eagleton Elementary School, Debbie Garren is the new principal. She formerly split time as an assistant principal for Carpenters Elementary School and at Eagleton Elementary. Suzanne Graves is the new assistant principal at Carpenter’s and Eagleton Elementary schools.

At Friendsville Elementary School, Stan Painter is the new principal. He was assistant principal at Mary Blount Elementary. Taking his place at Mary Blount Elementary is Dr. Jessie Robinette who was principal at Heritage Middle School.

At Heritage Middle School, Dr. Steve Moser is the new principal. He was principal at the alternative school at the Everett Learning Opportunities Center. New principal at Everett is Danny Galyon.

At Heritage High School, Colleen Mattison and Tim Stafford are new assistant principals. Mattison was a teacher, and Stafford was with the Knox County Schools system. They are replacing Jon Robinette, who took a teaching job with Seymour, and Jim Spears, who retired.

The three schools directors said the administrators at each school will be held to higher standards and face more pressure, just like the students.

“Exceptional leadership is imperative to moving a school forward and advancing student achievement,” Britt said.

Britt said there is no question there is a much higher degree of accountability on teachers and principals than ever. “In terms of how we prepare them for that, we’ve initiated a principal’s Leadership Academy where we give ongoing, monthly professional development to principals to help support them in their leadership practice at the schools,” he said.

Britt said the principals Leadership Academy is funded through Title II funds. “The principals are the ones we are asking to lead. We need to continue to grow our leaders so they can continue to grow our schools,” he said. “We basically have organized this into monthly half-day seminar-type sessions where we cover the whole gamut of issues.”

Thompson said the Maryville system is a site-based management concept that puts a lot of responsibility on principals.

“We put lot of responsibility on our principals and, because of that responsibility, they have be good leaders,” she said.

Thompson said the administration has been preparing for more than two years for the new standards.

“We’ve been in the process of training administrative and teaching staff for two years, and they have been spending a great deal of time looking at old standards and new standards and finding activities and plugging those in where there were gaps and holes because our textbooks were behind where the new standards are,” Thompson said. “We’ll look at test scores to see where gaps are in teaching or the way curriculum is lined up with standards. We also have our online assessments to benchmark where our students are performing.”

Shamblin praised the leadership of the administrators in the three Alcoa schools. “They don’t sit around and wait for me to give them direction,” he said. “They look for new and innovative ways to do things, which is good. We’re making progress in the areas that need to be improved.”

Shamblin said principals and teachers alike feel the pressure of preparing students to measure up to new standards. “With new standards and new accountability for teachers, where test scores are a part of their evaluation, there is pressure on teachers like never before,” he said.

After state lawmakers passed legislation last January in preparation to compete for federal Race to the Top funds, new ways of evaluating teacher performance were put in place. Tennessee was one of two states to receive $500 million in federal Race to the Top education funds over four years.

Forty states and the District of Columbia submitted proposals for Race to the Top funding in January. The Department of Education rated each state based on its ability to adopt challenging standards that prepare students for college and their careers, adequately measure student achievement and inform faculty of the best way to improve teaching methods, recruit and retain the best teachers, and turn around the lowest performing schools.

The Department of Education awarded additional points to applications that highlighted effective management of student data, emphasis on science and math education, and strong partnerships with universities and private firms. Tennessee and Delaware were the only two states to be awarded funding in the first round of the application process.

Britt said Blount County Schools got just shy of $490,000 a year -approximately $1.9 million total over four years. Britt said the plan they submitted focused on the greatest needs the system had and how the money could be used to help students achieve more. “It came out to three major things - formative assessments, technology and professional development,” he said.

Thompson said Maryville City Schools also got a little under $500,000 in total Race to the Top funds, $498,779 divided over four years. The money will be used for mentoring school leaders, formative benchmark assessments and professional development and mentoring of teachers.

Alcoa City Schools are to receive $220,000 in Race to the Top funds over four years.

Besides a tight budget, school directors were asked what their biggest challenge is likely to be for the new year.

Thompson said preparing for Coulter Grove Intermediate School to open in 2012 will be one of the biggest challenges. “In preparation for opening that new school, we’ll be working on zone lines since we’ll have two intermediate schools. We will be working to prepare staff and figure out which schools they’ll go to,” she said.

The Maryville City Schools director said that in addition to adding more duel credit and advanced placement courses at the high school, the biggest challenge for this year again will be funding. “We had a difficult time preparing the budget for 2010-11, and we’ll have the same challenges for the 2011-12 school year,” she said.

Shamblin said the new teacher evaluation standards will be a challenge for the teachers and principals. “I’m afraid morale may be affected,” he said. “We understand they’re working hard,” he said. “I don’t want educators to think we’re not good any more. They are good. They’re outstanding.”

Britt said one of biggest challenges is communicating how things have changed and how the education environment has changed in terms of the new, rigorous standards and the more difficult assessments. Britt said administrators must also communicate that this is a good thing for the students, although some may see it as negative.

“We’ll have to do a good job of articulating to parents and the community why these new changes encapsulated in the Tennessee Diploma Project are a good thing for our students and their futures,” he said. “That is the important thing. We want our students to be prepared to meet challenges of the 21st century.”

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