Student academic development and achievement is our highest priority and the central mission of our organization. To be successful as a school district, we must make certain that all of our students are learning and achieving at high levels, and that they acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be well prepared to take advantage of the full range of post-graduation opportunities. When students graduate with a Knox County Schools diploma, they must be ready for all that awaits them in this complex world. We must ensure that every student achieves academically and therefore has full access to post-secondary learning opportunities, a rewarding career, a meaningful role in our democracy, and an enlightened and fulfilling life.
Student success is directly dependent upon high quality instruction. Not only must teachers deliver rigorous content, they must also communicate high expectations, and attend to student engagement, relationships and learning. Our success in educating our children effectively will also require us to look closely at our instructional principles and practices. We will pursue the following promising strategies to enhance student academic achievement:
Academic Rigor and High Expectations
As I listened to our community regarding their hopes and aspirations for the future of the Knox County Schools, one theme struck a particularly resonant chord: the need to insist on high expectations for all students, and to maintain and strengthen the rigor of our academic courses, offerings, and standards. There is some significant concern among parents, teachers, administrators, and even students that not all students are being challenged to meet their full potential, and that not all students have access to the most demanding course offerings and programs. During the community forum at Bearden Middle School, one middle school student came to the microphone and spoke of boredom and lack of challenge in his classes, and he respectfully requested that he be pushed more academically. All students should expect to be challenged to stretch academically and to perform at their full scholastic capacity.
As we plan for the future, we will ensure that students across our school system have appropriate access to Advanced Placement (AP) and honors courses, innovative magnet schools, International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, laboratory science classes, dual-enrollment and dual-credit experiences, AVID coursework, Talented and Gifted (TAG) classes, and other specialized and demanding programming. More broadly, we must make certain that the high standards held, and important 21st century skills taught in these programs pervade every classroom in every one of our schools.
The Knox County Schools will embrace the new higher standards for our students that are being adopted by the State of Tennessee as part of the American Diploma Project. The additional mathematics requirements and more rigorous science standards, in particular, will represent an important intensification of our students’ learning. We will advocate for an assessment system that appropriately measures and reinforces these new higher standards, and we will work with the Knox County community to create awareness and understanding of the need for, and implications of, these new more rigorous standards.
I believe that it is our obligation as educators to possess and articulate universally high expectations and standards for all students in our school system. I will cultivate and reinforce an educational culture that reflects this essential responsibility. Our curriculum, and the instruction in every classroom every day, will reflect our belief that all students can learn advanced content and concepts, and that indeed they must become exceptional learners and thinkers to be successful in our competitive and complex world.
High School Redesign
One area of intense focus must be our high schools. Our assessment data tell us that while we have some strengths in secondary education, our high schools need to be more thoughtfully structured to support student learning and success. An overall graduation rate of only 79% is simply not acceptable for our community. Increasingly, we see too many students who get behind and “off-track” from the path to graduation by earning too few credits in their early high school experience. We need to both respond to this dynamic through remediation and creating additional pathways to successful graduation, while simultaneously executing strategies to prevent it.
In terms of response, research conducted by the Parthenon Group (a widely respected education research and consulting organization) in New York, Boston, Austin and several other metropolitan school districts has shown that one effective approach to prevent “off-track” students from dropping out of school is to apply the private sector concept of market segmentation to serving the at-risk high school population. To do this effectively, our school system will need to analyze the population of students who typically drop out, create an “early warning system” to identify potential students at risk, and develop or adapt small targeted alternative programs to meet their specific needs.
For example, a student who is turning eighteen years old and has not graduated but is only six credits short, has very different needs than a student who just turned sixteen and has not earned any high school credit. The Adult High School at the Historic Knoxville High School building may adequately address the needs of the older student, but may not be effective for the younger off-track student. The Parthenon research suggests that creating a program tailored to each of these student’s needs is perhaps the best intervention strategy that we can pursue for students at high risk of dropping out. We will embrace this strategy and expand our portfolio of alternative routes to successful graduation.
One of the more promising prevention tools is a transition program for students moving up from middle school to high school, often called a freshman academy. These programs, which we have developed at a few of our high schools, recognize the need for additional support and “safety nets” as students enter high school, as well as the fact that the transition from middle school to high school represents a critically important and formative period in the academic life of a student. The academic performance of high school freshmen in core courses is highly predictive of their likelihood of on-time graduation. Therefore, we will expand and enhance the supports available to students as they make the transition to high school.
Research has shown that students who have at least one strong relationship with a caring adult at school are more likely to complete their school work, engage in the life of the school, experience academic success, and graduate on time2. As a school district, we must do everything we can to ensure that we create and foster an environment and culture where appropriate relationships between teachers and students are valued and developed. Student advisories and Small Learning Communities (SLCs) are just two examples of work we are doing - that we will strengthen and expand - in order to nurture positive relationships and student engagement3,4.
We are fortunate to have a diversity of students, families and schools in our school system. Our urban schools have been the beneficiaries of substantial resources and personnel. Many well intentioned individuals and sound organizations have been part of the education reform efforts in the schools in our urban core. However, the variety and disparate focus of programs, initiatives and organizations focusing on our inner-city schools has caused some amount of programmatic, instructional and organizational dissonance.
The Office of Urban Schools, Project GRAD, Title I, the full-service schools initiative and our Magnet Schools program must better align their efforts at improving and supporting our urban schools.
Experiences in other school districts tell us that our Magnet Schools program could be an effective means of offering innovative and enriching educational experiences. The Magnet program should be maintained, but rather than pursued half-heartedly, magnet schools should be embraced and given our full commitment. In fact, given our rich regional expertise, I believe the Knox County Schools should consider developing a high quality stand-alone magnet technology high school. Once the Magnet Schools program has been implemented as conceptualized, we must continue to carefully evaluate its effectiveness.
The Project GRAD model has shown promise and has galvanized resources and support for some of our most disadvantaged schools. I believe it will prove to be a useful structure for urban school reform. The progress made by the Project GRAD program certainly warrants continued implementation and additional study, but the initiative should only continue if the organizational structure complements rather than competes with the school district’s supervision and direction.
We welcome and appreciate our partners who have contributed to the improvement of our urban schools, but there must be better alignment and coordination to ensure continued success. In the coming months, I will set a clear direction for our urban schools, and all of the programs and partners involved with our urban schools will be invited to embrace that direction, align their service provision, and work collaboratively to support our schools in pursuing that trajectory.
To foster academic success inside the classroom, student needs outside the classroom must be addressed. While we recognize that the Knox County Schools cannot provide all the services required to ensure that all students are ready to learn when they arrive at school, we must attempt to offer, facilitate, leverage, or broker a range of support services that allow our children to focus on their education. Heath services, dental, vision, mental health, nutrition, wellness, physical education, afterschool programming, counseling, and sometimes even assistance with basic living needs are all areas that our school system will likely need to consider and help to address as we work to make sure that all students have the tools to be academically successful. We are fortunate to have many organizations within our community with the mission to provide these types of services. We must identify and partner with these community organizations to help them to help our students.
If our students are to be successful in their academic career, it is vitally important that they begin their schooling ready to learn. We know from research that the early years of child development are crucial to prepare children to learn effectively once they are in school. While some do not believe the early years are the responsibility of the public schools, it is in our collective interest to ensure students get off to a good start academically and developmentally. I believe we must continue and intensify our successful efforts and investments in early childhood education.
School readiness provides children a solid foundation for their education. It helps make their early education experiences successful and in turn prepares them to seek and achieve future success. Our current voluntary, targeted and research based pre-Kindergarten program is proving to be very successful in preparing many children for school. This program reaches students who have significant educational and developmental challenges in their young lives. Our Birth-to-Kindergarten and Kindergarten Intervention programs have also successfully supported the growth, development and learning of our youngest Knox County residents.
In addition to specific developmental skills, these programs also address socialization skills and behavioral norms and expectations so our very young students will be prepared to take maximum advantage of the instruction provided in the primary grades. Readiness for all children multiplies the learning opportunities for every child by reducing the classroom challenges associated with students who are not prepared for school. The dividends that we are already seeing from our early childhood education initiatives confirm these are wise and worthy investments that should be continued and, if possible, expanded.
Focus on All Students
While the Knox County school system has enjoyed a commendable level of academic success, there are discernable groups of students who have not fully shared in that success. Students with disabilities, low-income students, students of color, and English language learners have frequently not seen achievement levels on par with their peers. There are many exceptions, and many instances where these groups of students are being served extraordinarily well and their outcomes reflect wonderful success. We must develop strategies to ensure that academic success in Knox County is not highly correlated with race, income, geography, disability or language. Enhancing cultural competency, broadening inclusion of students with disabilities in the regular education setting, continuing and strengthening our K-12 literacy program, and focusing resources to support schools with high proportions of low-income students are sound strategies that we will embrace. The future of our community depends on the success of all of our students, and therefore we must ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to achieve excellence.
Relevance and Engagement
One of the most important motivators for a student is when they can envision a successful future, can see an appropriate path to that future, and are supported along the journey. There are several ways that students can be assisted in this effort to better understand the relevance of their learning. Helping students understand the critical 21st century skills that are required in today’s workplace will help students connect today’s learning with tomorrow’s opportunities. Partnerships with community colleges, career and technical education programs, internships, university outreach programs and dual enrollment / dual-credit initiatives will also give students a practical perspective on how their academic success is tied to their future success.
Knox Achieves, Knox County’s initiative to enable all residents to attend community college, is a good example of how a specific opportunity may help students imagine a successful future. Diagnostic tools, such as WorkKeys or ACT Explore, can give a student useful information about their skills and interests so that they can work with schools to craft an educational program that is suited to leveraging their strengths. In addition, we must all provide support, guidance and model success for students. Mentorship programs or other school volunteer opportunities are critical for students to have exposure to successful adults in a wide variety of roles.
We must also recognize that many students become more deeply engaged in their school work when they are engaged in the life of the school and activities of interest to them. Art, music, foreign language, athletics, clubs, leadership opportunities, technology, experiential learning, JROTC, band and student government are just a few examples of how students can grow, develop and learn outside of their traditional core academic courses. These experiences frequently lead to greater academic engagement, and to more well-rounded, critical-thinking young people who are prepared for many facets of life. I will continue to endorse and support these enrichment activities as an important part of the learning experience for our students.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)
We must also intensify our efforts in educating our young people in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Not only are there tremendous resources to support STEM education in our region, but intensive instruction in these critical disciplines will develop students who posses deep content knowledge as well as critical-thinking, analytical and problem-solving skills. Connecting successful students who are well prepared in STEM disciplines with the almost unlimited demand in STEM career fields will be extremely beneficial to both our kids and our community.