Though questions of school facilities and consolidation have dominated much of the conversation around Greene County Schools, the system has made strides in state assessments. Director of Schools David McLain talked about those initiatives in a recent interview with The Greeneville Sun.
Q. Greene County Schools have made gains in state assessments in recent years, coming just fractions of a point from “Exemplary” district status and having several schools recognized as “Reward” Schools. What is the school system doing to continue to improve students’ academic performance?
A. Hard work and emphasis has been put on K-2 literacy through partnerships and revamping what we are doing. Dr. Kristi Wallin (curriculum supervisor for the system) has worked really hard in that area. So has the board, allocating additional funds for summer school and literacy as a whole.
Programming is focused on improving not just reading but also writing. We have kids writing in kindergarten. We have done a lot of work with some other school districts as well. A lot of professional development is taking place through our central office and also the Read to Be Ready grant we have received from the state. It has all helped get our kids out of that chute earlier and at a higher level to try raise achievement. The state has set a goal of 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level. That is a goal we have got to try to reach.
We are one of 11 districts in the state of Tennessee … that was a level 5 in English literacy, science, social studies. We are excited about that. But, we know that as quickly as we got there, losing a few teachers or retirements can result in you dropping as quickly. We are trying to keep good, quality teachers. We know that the key resource in those classrooms is our teachers and we need to support them.
The state now has a lot of emphasis on the postsecondary — students have to be a “ready graduate.” We are doing all we can to get kids involved in dual enrollment, whether that is at Walters State Community College or the Greene Technology Center as well as state dual credit within the classroom.
During the last two years the district was very close to exemplary status, a couple hundredths of a point. We have been a Level 5 district since we have been here. We had six state Reward Schools, and I think that is the most that has ever been for this school system — Chuckey Elementary, Chuckey-Doak Middle, McDonald Elementary, North Greene High, Ottway Elementary and South Greene High schools. We are excited about that and hopefully, when testing comes again in the spring, we will show academic growth.
Q. One of Gov. Bill Lee’s priorities is strengthening career and technical education (CTE). Do you anticipate that this increased interest will help enhance local programs, such as the masonry program at West Greene? What ways would you like to see the programs improved?
A. We have 10 eighth grades at this moment that feed our high school, and implementation of programs that could help attract students to CTE is a challenge with so many campuses. It is really no different than the masonry class we are offering at West Greene — we have it at one place. If you have one vocational school on site, everyone has an opportunity to do it. If we are going to put that program everywhere, it takes a lot of additional funds.
CTE is the focus of much conversation, and new requirements encourage students to graduate with dual credit or dual enrollment through Tennessee College of Applied Technology Morristown available at the vocational school. I am excited about that, but sometimes your setup makes that challenging as well. I am all supportive of vocational training. We have good programs at our vocational school and good programs at our high schools too, such as agriculture.
Q. The school system has focused on improving literacy in the past few years. Are there other subjects that the school system plans to focus on in the coming years, such as STEM?
A. The school system’s efforts are often tied to standards. Among the STEM accomplishments and activities within the school system are:
- a grant from East Tennessee State University providing robotics and other tech equipment to classrooms.
- “Maker Spaces” in our high school libraries and we have several elementary school libraries looking to make the move as well.
- a coding grant at Ottway.
- coding clubs at a few of our elementary schools and a few Lego League teams as well.
- solar go-carts at some of our high schools.
- summer school STEM projects and a two-week STEM camp last summer for middle school students.
- a 3M grant that purchased STEM boxes for middle school teachers to share.
We are doing things in this area that I think are very beneficial for kids — hands-on activities that they enjoy. All kids are different, and these STEM programming meets those needs of those students who are going into engineering or any of those kinds of fields. It is exciting the more we can offer.
Q. Another of part of Gov. Lee’s educational platform is support for school vouchers. If wider use of school vouchers is approved by the legislature, how do you see it affecting the county school system?
A. Some people would think that it is not a bad thing. I understand. I am a parent as well. Parents today have more choice than ever of where to send their kids, whether it is their public school, home schooling, a neighboring schools system. And now if this takes place, I know that rural districts would suffer.
In no way could this help Greene County Schools. We have already lost 1,000 students in the past 10 years. I hope if this does take place that the private entities will have to meet the same standards we do.
Q. What do you think are the top two or three challenges for the school system in the coming years?
A. No doubt, number one is loss of ADMs (Average Daily Membership — the number of students enrolled in a district) and how it affects the budget as we try to provide a high quality education for our kids. I will give kudos to our school board. They have worked extremely hard to do the best they can for Greene County Schools. Our administration, our teachers, our classified staff — we have a lot of great people in this school district that care about kids and work hard every day.
We just have to continue to provide those programs to make sure kids are successful. We are trying to graduate and educate all kids. We are tracked on all kids. We start doing this in middle school grades … trying to map what they are going to do. And we are trying to put them on the right track, whether that is community college, four-year-school, vocational training or the military. We want all kids to be successful and hopefully we can provide what they need.
I want the best for our school system, and I want equality for our students. If a school system is spending more per pupil, we ought to be right there. Our kids deserve that. That is my job — to fight for those kids. We try to be frugal with what we have. But, we are in kind of pickle when it comes to the state BEP (Basic Education Program) funding because it is based on student number and schools.
Two, I think aging facilities are a challenge. We have built one school in 38 years in Greene County. Those things can’t be ignored either. And trying to retain high quality teachers is always a challenge too for our school system.