Top 3 Tenn. Finalists
BY SARAH R. GREGORY
Committee members tasked with judging school-system finalists for a prestigious state-level award based on student achievement heard glowing reviews Thursday from students, parents, teachers, principals, and administrators in the Greeneville City School System.
Greeneville is among three finalists in Tennessee for the district-level SCORE Prize, which recognizes improved student achievement and comes with a $25,000 award.
SCORE is the common acronym for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education -- an independent, non-profit, non-partisan advocacy and research institution founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Annual SCORE Prizes are awarded to the individual Tennessee elementary school, middle school, high school, and school district (or system) with the most dramatic improvements in student achievement, as reflected in data.
ANNOUNCEMENT OCT. 28
Winners will be announced Oct. 28 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Education's Education Leadership Conference.
Other school-district finalists for the SCORE prize are the Kingsport City Schools and the Trousdale County Schools.
A news release from SCORE, issued when the finalists were named, said the Greeneville City School System has had strong growth across many subjects at all levels, with particularly notable performance in math.
FULL DAY FOR VISITORS
Four SCORE committee members were in Greeneville on Thursday for site visits and focus group interviews with students, teachers, principals, school board members and administrators.
The interviews were conducted by committee members Stephany Brown, a research associate; Dr. Gary Nixon, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education; Casey Remer, a policy analyst; and Laura Moore, director of innovation for SCORE.. They also conducted the interviews for the other district finalists.
The committee began the day with breakfast at the school system's Kathryn W. Leonard Administrative Offices, with a number of guests, including Greeneville Mayor W.T. Daniels and City Administrator Todd Smith.
Interviews with the school system's Leadership Team followed, just prior to the committee members' splitting up to conduct focus group sessions with City Schools' principals and Board of Education representatives.
As the various groups were interviewed, a number of themes appeared to emerge.
FOCUS ON 'WHOLE CHILD'
Numerous comments highlighted high expectations for students and educators, strong commitment to the community, and a focus on "the whole child" -- not just academic achievement, but character development.
The school system's motto -- "Cultivate the Mind, Impact the Heart" -- was referred to numerous times throughout the day, reinforcing a focus on relationships and extracurricular offerings in the arts, athletics, and through the military programs for the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
Throughout the day, another recurring theme emerged: enthusiastic support and confidence in the leadership of Director of Schools Dr. Linda Stroud.
SCHOOL BOARD COMMENTS
During a brief focus group session with Board of Education members Mike Hollowell, Cindy Luttrell, Chairman Craig Ogle, and Student Representative Carson Burke, Nixon posed questions about the district's goals, expectations, collaboration with students, teachers and administrators.
"We want to give all students a world-class education. We want to educate them successfully so they can compete in a global society," Luttrell said.
Ogle echoed those comments, focusing on collaboration at all levels.
"Everyone has a role," he said. "As long as everyone understands their role and how they can play a part and be successful, then we will do very well."
Including Burke as a student representative on the board, Ogle said, is an example of the school system's being progressive.
"It seems like we have always had, along the way, input from our student representative that has impacted decisions that we may make as a school board," Hollowell stated, adding, "It's been a great thing."
"It gives you perspective you may not have thought about -- what the students experience," Nixon observed.
Engaging parents in the community has also been a key factor for Greeneville City Schools, Luttrell added.
City schools, she said, focus on "things we can do to help the whole child."
That focus brings about programs such as before- and after-school efforts; the Family Resource Center, which discreetly operates food pantries and clothes closets for those in need, and the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative, that allows students to use their own smartphones and computers in the classroom.
Change -- as in broad reform measures undertaken by the Tennessee Department of Education -- is a "driving force" for Greeneville City Schools, Hollowell said.
"We've got to be flexible in what we do to deliver our education product to our community," he said.
"We measure ourselves by higher-performing school districts" in and outside of Tennessee, Ogle said.
Achievement data -- the basis of the school system's inclusion as a SCORE Prize finalist -- "drives what our board goals are," Luttrell said.
"Especially with Common Core [State Standards]," she said.
"We know we're going to be looking at revising all of our goals -- not to just meet, but exceed standards."
Nixon asked the group about how the Board of Education collaborates with its superintendent.
"Communication and collaboration is critical for our particular superintendent," Luttrell said.
"We knew when Dr. Stroud was put into the position that we had made a very wise choice," Ogle said, "but I was even more impressed after the appointment."
Board members pointed to Stroud's willingness to make herself available, spending full days in each of the schools to listen to teachers and communicate their input back to the board.
"She's very transparent and open," Luttrell said. "I think she's proactive, not reactive."
Aside from broad support for Stroud, administrators, and teachers, perhaps the most echoed comments throughout the day from students, teachers, principals, administrators, and parents pertained to high expectations for everyone involved with the Greeneville City School System.
Expectations, it was stressed, are high for everyone -- students, teachers, and administrators alike.
"Our most valuable resources are our employees," Ogle said. As such, he added, the Board of Education has provided additional funding for professional development.
During a focus group comprised of numerous elementary school teachers, the discussion quickly turned to academic expectations for students.
The teachers agreed, reinforcing to Moore, who conducted the focus group session, a systemwide belief that all children can learn -- not at the same level, but with a capability of reaching their full potential.
Culture in the Greeneville City School System, Moore was told, encourages teachers to work together and share resources, while preserving teachers' autonomy in the classroom.
"Teachers are respected here," said Tusculum View fifth grade teacher Candice Wiggin. "Varying opinions are valued and listened to," she added, noting a mutual respect between teachers and leadership.
When the group was asked what is expected of Greeneville City teachers, a few traits were quickly agreed upon: highly-qualified educators, continuous learners, and a high level of integrity.
"Teachers are good friends" in Greeneville City Schools, said Tusculum View teacher Stacy King.
Grade-level team meetings, common planning time, and teacher-led meetings allow the educators to share strategies and resources, Moore was told.
After visiting schools to conduct focus groups with students, teachers, and principals, the four SCORE Committee members gathered in a session with a number of parents of students attending City schools.
A group of about two dozen parents gathered in the Kathryn W. Leonard Administrative Offices to answer questions from the committee.
When asked about things the parents like, the relationships between teachers and students was the clear top response -- and repeated numerous times.
"Our teachers love our kids," said Rush Bakshi, mother of a Greeneville High School (GHS) student.
"They hug our kids. They love our kids. It is really nice," she said.
Another GHS parent, Bob Leonard, added that parents are valued by the school system and very involved as volunteers.
"They embrace and really pull the parents into the education process," Leonard said.
When asked about academic expectations, parents agreed that children are expected to reach their full potential, not just in the classroom, but also in character.
Jeff Taylor, parent of a GHS student, said "The school system expects our children to exceed and excel, but they make sure it's specific to each child."
Taylor said that students are prepared and "encouraged every step of the way" because teachers and principals in Greeneville City Schools "want every child to reach their potential."
(Editor's Note: Interestingly, in a sense the Greeneville City Schools actually has two connections to this year's SCORE competition among school districts since, as of March 2012, former Greeneville Director of Schools Dr. Lyle Ailshie is the Director of Schools in the Kingsport district, another of the three Tennessee finalists for the award.)