Administrators list challenges facing schools

Rick Wagner • Feb 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Imagine teaching a group of secondary school students, preparing them for tests and graduation requirements, when 37 percent of the class moves in or out by year’s end.

Imagine teaching children when more than four in 10 receive free or reduced-price lunches.

And imagine trying to get half of enrolled scholarship-winning, first-year community college students prepared for a two-year degree when they first must take remedial or developmental courses.

All three of those things occur locally — the first two in the Kingsport school system and the last at Northeast State Technical Community College.

Richard Kitzmiller, superintend of Kingsport City Schools, said student mobility figures mean that on average last year, 37 percent of students either enrolled or left a city school.

“We’re really in many ways teaching a moving audience,” Kitzmiller said at Thursday’s Education and Workforce Summit sponsored by the NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership and held at Northeast State.

Recommendations from breakout sessions include soliciting more church, civic club and business tutoring of students.

Aside from nearly one in three students going to or coming from other schools, other systems and other states, Kingsport Board of Education President Susan Lodal said the system last year had 186 students who were considered “homeless,” which means they had no fixed address for a suitable nighttime residence. The number this year so far is 130.

And Lodal said 43 percent of the district’s more than 6,000 students are on free or reduced-price lunches.

Kitzmiller said the school system also struggles with a fixed school day and calendar that does not necessarily meet the learning styles of all students, as well as academic time “stolen” by other worthwhile or required activities.

For instance, Lodal said school clinics in the city system had 65,000 student visits last year and deal with catheters, tube feeding, allergies and diabetes.

Students also are mandated to have a certain amount of physical activity in the school day.

In addition, Kitzmiller said the system needs more than the five professional development days for teachers it has. He said U.S. teachers spend about 80 percent of their school time with students, while other countries spend no more than 60 percent. The system is looking at extending the school day to provide more time for professional development and some built-in weather days.

Kitzmiller likened addressing many of these problems to asking a pilot to rebuild an airplane in mid-flight with a plane full of passengers.

Kitzmiller and Sullivan County Director of Schools Jack Barnes also said the systems must convince parents, students and even teachers that new state standards and testing are necessary and good.

Another recommendation from breakout groups was to publicize the need for change in the education system.

“It’s not quite soaked in we need these changes,” Kitzmiller said. “Many people want us to improve without changing. That’s hard to do.”

At the college level, Erin Blevins, who oversees the Educate and Grow scholarship program at Northeast State, said of about 194 Educate and Grow-eligible students enrolled last year, 51 percent required remedial or developmental courses.

To address such problems, starting this fall all Tennessee high school students entering as freshmen must have four years of math.

But that’s just the tip of the Tennessee Diploma Project iceberg, which also includes new standardized testing that raises the bar on a state that the National Chamber of Commerce said got an F for truth in advertising for its TCAP and Gateway exams.

Tennessee is dropping TCAP and Gateway tests in favor of standardized ACT tests.

Barnes said the Tennessee Diploma Project is designed to help students compete nationally and globally.

“We (as a state) said students were proficient, but they weren’t proficient,” Barnes said.

He said goals of the program are to make students college ready, have deeper science and math understanding and an understanding of how they are used in technology, teach students how to work in groups, and help students develop personal and community responsibility.

The program adds rigor, gets rid of redundancies, adapts activities to help students, and pushes for a higher level of thinking and better problem solving skills.

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