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State BOE Urges MNPS Board to Stop ‘Posturing’ On Charter Application

Statement from the Tennessee State Board of Education; August 15, 2012: 

NASHVILLE, August 15 — The State Board of Education is disappointed by the recent action regarding the indefinite deferral of the approval of the Great Hearts Charter School application. Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) had an opportunity to quickly bring closure to the process by approving the application as directed by the State Board of Education. The State Board of Education urges the MNPS Board to take the actions necessary to comply with the requirements of state law. Needless delays, the unnecessary expenditure of MNPS resources, and posturing relative to this charter school approval do not benefit the students of Nashville.

Huffman: MNPS Board of Ed ‘In Violation of State Law’

Statement from the Tennessee Department of Education; August 15, 2012 

In response to Tuesday night’s Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Board of Education meeting, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman released the following statement:

“The Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education is now operating in violation of state law. We will take appropriate action to ensure that the law is followed.”

State Names 250 Schools to List of Priority, Focus Schools

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Education; August 13, 2012

NASHVILLE — In accordance with Tennessee’s new accountability system, designed through the state’s waiver from No Child Left Behind, the Tennessee Department of Education today released a list of Priority Schools and Focus Schools to the State Board of Education.

Priority Schools are the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee, in terms of academic achievement. These 83 schools are eligible for inclusion in the Achievement School District or in district Innovation Zones. They may also plan and adopt turnaround models for school improvement.

Focus Schools are the 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and English-language learners. The department has named 167 schools as Focus Schools.

Schools on the Focus list are not necessarily there because of low achievement. In fact, many showed excellent growth last year. Rather, the Focus designation provides districts the opportunity to look closely at particular subgroups of students who may be underperforming and to provide specific support and intervention.

Focus Schools will be eligible to apply for grants aimed at dramatically closing the achievement gap. Schools not awarded a competitive grant will be provided state resources to close their achievement gaps.

Tennessee strives for all students to improve every year, with students who are furthest behind improve at a faster rate. By naming Priority Schools and Focus Schools, the department of education enables districts to assist these schools and create improvement plans tailored to the areas they need to grow. Districts may also work with the state’s Centers for Regional Excellence (COREs) to share effective strategies for raising achievement levels and closing gaps.

“We want all schools to be intentional about improving student achievement, especially for students who are the furthest behind, and this year, we have been able to offer more nuanced measures of school accountability,” said Kevin Huffman, education commissioner. “We believe these measures will lead many schools to create effective intervention programs and ultimately address their needs for improvement.”

The Priority and Focus Schools lists, as well as an information sheet explaining the state’s new accountability system, can be found here. Schools identified as Priority and Focus will retain the designation and varied support for three years, from 2012-13 through 2014-15. The department will announce Reward Schools, the top-performing schools in the state, in the coming weeks.

Earlier in the summer, Tennessee named its 21 Exemplary Districts, which successfully raised student achievement and narrowed gaps under the new system. District accountability information can be found here.

For more information, contact Kelli Gauthier at (615) 532-7817 or Kelli.Gauthier@tn.gov.

Haslam Defends Teacher Evaluation System

Gov. Bill Haslam again Monday defended the use of the state’s new teacher evaluation system and reminded everyone that the whole idea didn’t start with his administration.

Haslam made the point during a press availability on Capitol Hill after a ceremony for veterans. He told the Rotary Club of Nashville later Monday that change is “painful,” and he said after the speech he was making a particular reference to the evaluations with that remark.

Haslam also said Monday he will not state a position on school vouchers until later this year, although he told the Rotary audience the voucher issue is “probably going to be one of the most contentious” when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

The issue of teacher evaluations has been on the front burner in the Legislature with lengthy hearings on the process last week. The system has prompted many complaints among teachers and principals. The Haslam administration has basically stayed the course on the system, which is in its first year, even though Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman gained approval to tweak the system with some changes meant to make evaluations less time-consuming.

Tennessee’s success in the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition included a plan to evaluate teachers every year. Tenured teachers will be evaluated with four observations, and those without tenure will be evaluated six times. Haslam pointed out that the process goes back to the application for the federal funds won by the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“Remember how we got here. This was part of the Race to the Top application,” Haslam said. “Everybody agreed evaluations were really at the heart of that. The evaluation process was a work in progress for a year before this.

“It spanned administrations.”

He said it’s still early.

“This is November. We started it in September. It’s not like we have a really long track record,” Haslam said. “It takes a little bit of adjusting to get used to the evaluation. The first evaluation, because it is the one with lesson plans, does have the most paperwork involved in it. When we get past that, the evaluations after that will look a little different.”

Legislators are hearing from their constituents about the impact the evaluation system is having on schools.

“I understand. Before, if you got evaluated twice every 10 years and now you’re looking at this new process, that’s not something necessarily, ‘Oh boy, I’m really excited about that,'” Haslam said.

“But I do think, again, back to what’s at the heart of the change we need, why we won Race to the Top, was this idea of making certain we’re doing everything we can to encourage great teachers to be in the classroom. And the evaluation piece is a key part of that.”

Disgruntlement over the evaluation system has been so pronounced some observers have suggested that the state should hold off on actually acknowledging the findings in this first year, but Haslam remains steadfast. At the same time he dismissed any notion that changes in the basic concept might jeopardize the $500 million the state won in the Race to the Top competition in 2010.

“I don’t want to cast the political argument, ‘If you all change it we’re going to lose our funds.’ I don’t think that’s a fair argument for us to be making,” Haslam said. “I think it’s more about putting in jeopardy the pace that we need to change.”

The Haslam administration has stayed in the background thus far on the school voucher issue. The Legislature is considering a proposal that would allow children in the state’s largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton — to apply for funds to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a private school.

The issue has pitted those who favor school choice against those who are protective of the public school system.

Haslam was asked Monday why he has not taken a stand on vouchers yet.

“It’s incumbent upon us to do our homework to see: Do we know enough to make that call?” he said.

Haslam pointed to the need to study the experiences of other states who have tried vouchers in order to make the right decision. A voucher bill passed the Senate in the last legislative session and is expected to be considered in the House next year. The House version, HB388, is sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.

‘Class, We Have a Visitor Today…’

Trish Potts, a 6th-grade language arts teachers in Williamson County, got the chance to look Gov. Bill Haslam in the eye Friday and say, “It’s hard right now to be a teacher, because there’s a lot of teacher bashing going on.”

It was a friendly conversation, part of a breakfast talk between the governor and about a dozen teachers and administrators at Hillsboro Elementary and Middle schools, part of an ongoing effort by Haslam to meet with educators and ask them questions, rather than tell them about policy.

The teachers Friday got the opportunity to describe the rewards, frustrations and challenges they face. The discussion was cordial, and the educators seemed pleased to get the opportunity to interact with the governor.

But the friendly chat came with the background of major education changes being proposed in the state, including tenure reform by Haslam and an attempt to end collective bargaining rights for the state teachers union by the Legislature.

Haslam appeared to fully appreciate what he heard. He was inquisitive and engaging about issues the teachers face in the classroom. There didn’t seem to be an outright complaint in the room, but the teachers certainly gave Haslam information they felt he needed to hear.

“We’re not educating kids. We’re growing citizens,” Potts said. “We’re teaching them how to get along with each other. We’re teaching them social skills. We’re teaching them life skills, how to deal with life. Because of that, this is a cherished profession.”

Potts said it would be helpful if people understood that teachers are molding citizens and that the job is not just about test scores.

Jason Loudon, a 7th- and 8th-grade social studies teacher, put his finger on perhaps the greatest irony of the job.

“It’s the most gratifying job, but it’s the most thankless,” Loudon said.

Haslam appeared to agree.

Haslam also visited a couple of classrooms of young children and interacted with them. One of the first things he did upon arrival was to look at a special display where students had written on cards what they would do as governor if they had the chance.

One of the student ideas read, “I would try to lower job unemployment.” Another read, “I would change how many school days there are in a week.” Another, “I would help ones in need.” And one, “I would lower gas prices,” which Haslam definitely noticed and enjoyed, thinking about his former job in the Haslam family business, the Pilot Flying J Travel Centers that sell gas.

But the focus was on teacher feedback. Haslam heard teachers describe how much time they put into the job, how they felt some of the most valuable professional development time they know — and want more of — is to spend time with their peers and get ideas from them.

He heard about the importance of communicating with parents. He heard how some teachers are using new communication techniques like Twitter, but he heard that not all students have Internet access.

“It’s easy for those of us in policy roles to think we know the answers to everything,” Haslam told reporters after the meeting. “It’s easy to get caught up in theory or what you’re reading about in other places.

“It’s a very different world if you’re in the classroom and preparing to be in that classroom 60 hours a week. Education is the key to what we want to do, and I want to make certain I’m always talking to people who are actually hands-on doing that.”

Potts was one of the teachers who filled him in on the realities of the workload on a teacher.

“Most of us are putting in 10-11-hour days, six days a week,” she told Haslam. “I think the general public believes we get here at 8:30 and leave at 3:30. I don’t know a single teacher who’s ever done that.”

Loudon talked about the role teachers play in a student’s life. He said teachers may be the last best chance some students have to be productive, and he put that in perspective with teacher evaluations that are such a hot political topic.

“We’re the last hope. We’re the only avenue to reach a lot of these kids,” Loudon said. “None of that stuff is assessed.

“We’re held accountable by very rigid standards given the variables in play.”

Loudon said he didn’t know if the evaluation process addresses what is actually going on in the classroom.

“As the direction of the country goes further and further toward it being the end-all and be-all whether a teacher is a good teacher or not, I think we all feel threatened by that, considering how much time and heart we pour into the profession,” he said.

“The key to recruiting teachers is to be real with them on the front end, that it’s not all roses. The kind of satisfaction you can feel when you see a kid learn something is the best feeling in the world. It’s the best profession in the world. But when you’re attacked nationally, as you’re the enemy almost, it’s ‘You’re the one that’s keeping my child from learning,’ or ‘You’re not enough for my kid,’ ‘My kid needs more.’ ‘My school needs more.'”

Haslam did allude to the purpose of his tenure proposal, which includes the evaluation of teachers, which has been the subject of substantial debate in the Legislature.

“I think the vast majority of teachers are great,” Haslam told the group. “I want to make certain we do have things in place where we don’t have the wrong person in front of children every day.

“I understand why people are nervous about the evaluation system, because so much does ride on it. I guess I would argue that not having any kind of evaluation system and not using metrics to measure things would be the wrong direction to go. Our task is to figure out how to get that right.”

After the session as Haslam talked with the media, he elaborated on his tenure plan, which he wants to change from a three-year probationary period to five years. The bill has been passed in the Senate and will be considered next by the House Education Committee.

“Tenure was a bill we proposed because we think it’s important. Teaching should be treated like the profession these folks described,” Haslam said.

“We want to make certain we reward those great teachers, and that those folks who are working to get better, we’re acknowledging that. And then people that maybe shouldn’t be in the classroom, that we address that as well.”

In his discussion with teachers, Haslam was told how in such a litigious environment it’s not uncommon for parents to bring lawyers to meetings about their children.

Haslam was asked later about the current perception of teachers being widely vilified.

“It is a perception, some because of current political issues, but maybe even beyond that,” Haslam said.

“When we grew up, the teacher was right, and now the teacher is challenged all the time. There maybe is a societal view that teachers are people who can always be subject to criticism. All of us should be willing to hear the things we could do to be better, but I do think unfortunately our society has started to say that teaching doesn’t have to be treated like other professions do, and that’s just wrong.”

Lawmakers Mulling Expanded School Drug Testing

Legislation is advancing through the Tennessee General Assembly that would permit school districts to implement a random drug testing policy for students who participate in any school-sponsored extracurricular activities.

The Senate and House Education committees each passed the legislation last week.

“There’s about five or six coaches that call me every year to get this passed because it’s a deterrent,” said the Senate sponsor of the bill, Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville.

Drug testing of students is already allowed under state law, but not randomly. Currently, a student may only be drug tested “if there are reasonable indications to the principal that the student may have used or be under the influence of drugs.”

If the legislation becomes law, local education agencies that choose to implement a random drug testing policy must notify parents of the policy and get their written consent to test their child, and parents must be notified if their child is chosen for a random drug test.

Results of the tests would remain private, and if a student tests positive for drugs or alcohol, the student would undergo a drug and alcohol assessment to determine whether or not the student needs counseling for their drug or alcohol use.

Lee Harrell, director of Government and Labor Relations for the Tennessee School Boards Association, told the Senate Education Committee a positive drug test would not hurt a student’s education.

“The intent of this bill is not to be punitive…as far as suspension from school,” he said. “The child will, under most policies, be excluded from that activity — if he or she tests positive — for a certain amount of time as determined by school policy.”

Under the proposals, student participation in any extracurricular activity, not just athletics, could result in students being required to submit to testing if their parents agree.

According to Fiscal Review, there were about 484,100 students in 2008-2009 in grades six-twelve, and the committee estimated about half participated in extracurricular activities.

The committee also estimated about five percent of those students would be randomly drug tested if the bill becomes law.

The Senate version of the bill is now ready for a floor vote; the House version could be taken up by that chamber’s Finance Committee next week.

Bredesen Highlights School Breakfast Week

Press Release from the Tennessee Department of Education, March 8, 2010:

Nashville, TN – Governor Phil Bredesen has proclaimed March 8 – 12 School Breakfast Week in Tennessee in recognition of the important role the School Breakfast Program plays in the lives of Tennessee students. The School Breakfast Program is a national, federally funded program that provides more than 30 million nutritionally balanced breakfasts to Tennessee students each year.

“Students who eat breakfast have the fuel they need to do their best in school,” Governor Bredesen said. “The School Breakfast Program gives students a nutritious start to the school day and allows them to concentrate on the critical task of learning.”

This year’s campaign, “School Breakfast – Ready Set Go!,” introduces students to the importance of school breakfast and demonstrates how a school breakfast program prepares students for a busy day at school. The theme will also help students learning about the importance of eating health and being active.

“Whether a child is too sleepy to eat breakfast before he leaves home, or is not hungry when he catches an early bus, he can get an inexpensive, nutritious breakfast at school,” said Sarah White, Director of School Nutrition. “This program means no student should be distracted from their studies by hunger.”

National School Breakfast Week (NSBW) was launched in 1989 to raise awareness of the availability of the School Breakfast Program (SBP) to all children. Each year, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), along with Department’s of Education, helps schools to celebrate NSBW with a fun theme.

Audit: Former Wrestling Coach at Kenwood High Improperly Withheld School Funds

Press Release from Tennessee Comptroller of Treasury Justin Wilson, Feb. 24, 2010:

A former wrestling coach at Clarksville’s Kenwood High School lost or misappropriated money from fundraisers and equipment sales, an investigation by the state Comptroller’s Division of Municipal Audit has found.

The former coach sold students “player packages” with sweatshirts, gym bags and other items. However, some students complained that they did not receive all of the promised items. School officials eventually had to refund more than $1,000 to students for undelivered items.

Because the former coach didn’t maintain adequate records, auditors were unable to determine how much money was actually collected, how much was spent for school purposes and how much was missing.

Also, the former coach turned over to the school’s bookkeeper only a portion of the money collected from a candy sale and a cookie dough sale. Auditors determined that the fundraisers should have netted more than $2,000 above the amount the former coach submitted.

Auditors were also unable to locate two first aid kits, valued at $300 each, and a wrestling trophy that had been kept in the former coach’s office.

“It is always disappointing to me when someone in a position of public trust violates that trust,” said Comptroller Justin P. Wilson. “It’s reprehensible when that violation involves money intended to support school programs. Schools already have enough financial challenges during these difficult economic times without money being lost or misappropriated.”

“Instances such as this one demonstrate how important it is for teachers and coaches to keep and maintain their records involving fundraisers, school sales and donations,” said Dennis Dycus, Director of the Division of Municipal Audit. “Adequate record keeping not only helps to ensure that a school program receives all the money it should, but it also alerts school personnel, early on, that money may be missing or stolen before it is too late and thousands of dollars are gone.”

Schools, District Awarded for Improving Student Behavior

Press Release from the Tennessee Department of Education, Feb. 9, 2010:

Nashville, TN – The Tennessee Department of Education is proud to announce the 2009 Character Education Best Practices Merit Winners announced last night during the 2010 Tennessee School Counselor and Administrator Leadership Institute.

The following schools and school district have been recognized as models for improving attitudes and behavior within their schools:

Stanford Elementary Montessori Design School – Metro Nashville Public Schools

Ruby Major Elementary School – Metro Nashville Public Schools

Sumner County Schools – awarded for district-wide activities

Receiving special commendation for outstanding work:

Richard Hardy Memorial School – Richard City Schools

Granbery Elementary School – Metro Nashville Public Schools

“We congratulate these schools for putting an emphasis on the whole child and positive school environment,” Education Commissioner Timothy Webb said. “The habits students develop while in school carry over into their homes and communities. School staff and students should be proud of the work they’ve accomplished.”

Representatives shared information regarding their efforts to incorporate character education across curriculum, participating in service projects and efforts in increasing parent and community involvement. Schools and school districts compete annually by submitting their strategy and evidence of its effectiveness.

“Creating a safe and welcoming learning environment is one of the most important things we can do for a child,” said Laura Nichols, Director of Character Education. “These schools have developed methods that prove successful and they should be commended.”

Ramsey: Planned Parenthood Won’t Locate by Catholic High School

Press Release from Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville:

Nashville – Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey today announced that Planned Parenthood will not be allowed to place an abortion clinic next door to Memphis Catholic High School. The state Health Services and Development Agency voted to allow the move last month after the Catholic Diocese of Memphis formally protested the move. At the time, Lt. Governor Ramsey criticized the HSDA’s action as shocking and insensitive.

“I am very pleased that the nation’s largest abortion provider will not be allowed to set up shop next door to Memphis Catholic High School,” said Lt. Governor Ramsey. “The HSDA’s action showed extremely poor judgment and I am very pleased at this outcome.”

Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region had received approval from the HSDA in December to relocate to 1750 Madison Avenue in Memphis. The location would have housed two surgical rooms where over 700 abortions would have been performed annually. Memphis Catholic High School as well as a nursing home for retired priests is located two-tenths of a mile from the site.

After the HSDA vote, Lt. Governor Ramsey directed the Senate Government Operations Committee to bring the HSDA before the committee and explain the action. On December 23, the property owner of the building located at 1750 Madison Avenue assured his tenants in a letter that “negotiations with Planned Parenthood of Memphis to occupy the Sixth floor have ceased and they will not be moving into our building.”

Lt. Governor Ramsey was recently named Tennessee Right to Life Legislator of the Year. In the 2009 legislative session, he led the fight to deny state funds to Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.