Summit participants outline ways to improve local schools, work force

Rick Wagner • Feb 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Look for more community-based tutoring of Sullivan County students.

Also be on the lookout for new scholarship opportunities for older students and a campaign about the good in public education as well as the bad that needs improving.

Those are among some of the often overlapping suggestions that came out of a daylong Education and Workforce Summit sponsored by NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership at Northeast State Technical Community College on Thursday.

The event was chaired by former Kingsport Mayor Jeanette Blazier and modeled after the 1999 Kingsport Economic Summit.

NETWORKS — a joint economic development effort of Kingsport, Sullivan County, Bristol, Tenn., and Bluff City — will now forge the suggestions and recommendations into goals and find “champions” for their implementation.

“Education and economic development go hand in hand,” Blazier said. “You can’t separate them.”

The event drew about 140 participants, who listened to presentations in the morning then broke out into small sessions after lunch to address five areas of concern.

Keynote speaker Oliver “Buzz” Thomas — executive director of the Niswonger Foundation and a Baptist minister, lawyer and author — said Tennessee’s education system is broken. Thomas cited a statistic that just 18 percent of state high school graduates made ACT benchmarks in language arts, reading, science and math.

Those benchmarks mean students have a 75 percent chance of making a C and a 50 percent chance of making a B in those course areas in college.

Keith Wilson, chairman of the NETWORKS board and publisher of the Kingsport Times-News, cited recent U.S. Census data that 19.3 percent of Sullivan County residents had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 21.7 percent in Tennessee and 27 percent nationwide.

With a population of more than 153,000, he said that means Sullivan County needs 11,500 people to complete their college degree so the county can reach the U.S. average.

“Before we can reach greatness in education, we first have to reach mediocrity,” Wilson said.

That concern was addressed by a recommendation in one breakout session to give a “second chance” to get the Educate and Grow scholarship for eligible Sullivan County students who don’t go straight into Northeast State from high school.

Breakout groups addressed the following five areas:

• Helping local systems address the new high school graduation standards.

Beginning next year, the Tennessee Diploma Project requires four years of math and passing more strenuous, standardized testing.

Pat Turner, a Kingsport Board of Education member, outlined recommendations to educate the public about the changes coming, focus on preparation before high school, and look at using churches, civic clubs, businesses and other groups to do tutoring since Tennessee funding for programs that help with tutoring and summer school are being cut next school year.

Carrie Upshaw, a volunteer with the Kingsport school system, suggested additional student support earlier and more frequently from businesses, churches and civic groups; educating the public on the new high school standards; and strengthening elementary math and science through teacher training and recruitment using alternative licensing, pay incentives and retirees.

• Help all county graduates qualify for the Educate and Grow scholarship, which requires scoring a 19 on the ACT.

East Tennessee State University student Joseph Robertson said his group suggested marketing Educate and Grow through Facebook, text messages, churches and campus tours. Other ideas were providing ACT preparation, mentoring and tutoring, and partner with businesses with career counseling to push a culture valuing education.

• Increasing the number of Sullivan County residents with a bachelor’s degree.

Gloria Gammell, the University of Tennessee representative at the soon-to-open Higher Education Center in downtown Kingsport, said her group suggested promoting a culture of learning through career counseling, mentoring from businesses and a community buy-in, including media outlets celebrating academic achievement as much as athletic achievement.

The group also suggested giving older students a second chance for Educate and Grow and the state lottery scholarships usually limited to recent high school graduates; pushing dual enrollment courses; bringing more technology to students; and offering a “clean slate” or “academic bankruptcy” to students who started school and failed or dropped out.

• Foster a learning culture.

Kingsport Tomorrow board member Nick Grabar said his group recommended establishing a public mind-set that major changes are called for; embracing and recruiting those who are under-educated or didn’t finish a degree program; and increasing literacy levels for children and adults.

• Make Sullivan County schools performance leaders.

John Vachon, co-owner of Urban Synergy in Kingsport, said his group suggested benchmarking not only state and national scores but individual schools within the system; marketing the case for change and educational excellence to the community; and formulating a strategic plan to remove barriers for the three school systems to collaborate.

The group also suggested rewarding and recognizing successful systems, including the teachers, administrators and students.

Participants were asked to sign up for a particular area of interest if those chose. Those people will be called on to help with the effort once NETWORKS officials convert the recommendations into goals.

“We have to take ownership of this plan,” Wilson said. “It can’t be a community endeavor without community participation.”

For more information visit www.networkstn.com.

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