By GLENDA CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman came to town to pass along some information and get some opinions: what is his office doing that is working well, what would administrators and teachers like to see changed and what would they like to have considered for the future?
Huffman met Union City High School principal Wes Kennedy, Union City Middle School principal Michael Paul Miller, Union City Elementary School principal George Leake, Director of Schools Gary Houston, system data coach Martha Jo Stewart, supervisor of food service Billie Rich and classroom/curriculum coordinator Vicky Wilkinson at UCHS to discuss such issues. Cliff Sturdivant, Northwest Tennessee field services director for the Tennessee Department of Education, was also on hand.
Huffman has been traveling across the state, making such visits and keeping his finger on the pulse of schools as a way to gauge the health of the educational system in the Volunteer State.
Houston used the visit to acquaint the commissioner with issues that represent both success stories and continuing challenges for the system he heads. He noted that the system, which has fewer than 400 students in the high school, nevertheless boasts seven challenging AP classes, with specifically trained instructors and an understanding that students will not simply attempt the highest level classes but will take the exams associated with them, as well. He added that teachers also try to give their best to students who plan to go to college but are not interested in being part of the Union City Magnet School program, as well as those students who plan to become part of the work force and students who have special challenging educational needs.
When asked by the commissioner to provide a history of the city’s system, Houston noted that for more than a century, residents of the city had been committed to supporting Union City schools with additional tax funds because they believed in the goals of the system and had seen repeated evidence of its educational success.
Administrators told Huffman their teachers seem to be feeling less stress from the new evaluation system as they see how it is actually playing out. Said one principal, “I’m seeing some teachers come full circle, from being apprehensive to seeing (the feedback they get from evaluations) add value to their work. Teachers are buying in. They know what to expect and they want feedback.”
The principals suggested, too, that teachers are hoping for a clear and constant statement related to the material they are expected to help their students master.
The commissioner said once common core standards are put in place, problems with changing expectations will be addressed positively. According to a statement on the Department of Education website, “Tennessee is well down the road of implementing college- and career-ready, internationally benchmarked standards. The State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards in math and English/Language Arts in July 2010. This is an initiative led by the states designed to create a common core of state standards that is relevant and reflects the knowledge and skills young people need for success in college and the workforce.”
Huffman stressed his department’s concern that schools manage to successfully close the gap between the highest and lowest performing students, and Houston pointed out the Union City system is seeing positive changes from the graduation coach who is working with students who need extra help earning a diploma.
Educators also expressed the hope that those responsible for training teachers in the common core program will be consistent in the information they provide. Huffman responded that he was aware of problems with training in the past and his department was attempting to address those issues by hiring and training the personnel instead of relying on contract employees. He praised the Leadership Council for helping to create the standards and said more than 16,000 educators would be trained over the summer.
Huffman expressed admiration for the system’s creative use of incentive programs put in place not only to encourage students across the board to do their best in the classroom and on tests but also on the effort initiated to urge AP students to reach higher and higher goals. These incentive programs are made possible by funds provided by the Union City Schools Foundation.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 4.13.12