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Kingsport may propose taking control of Innovation Academy

Rick Wagner • Jun 23, 2013 at 11:39 PM

KINGSPORT — Officials of Kingsport City Schools are poised to propose assuming operational control of Innovation Academy, a STEM school jointly operated and funded with Sullivan County.

However, county officials are not so sure about that.

Superintendent Lyle Ailshie talked about complex issues with student test scores and school and teacher accountability when he discussed the matter with the Board of Education at a Thursday night work session, the same meeting at which he presented the proposal offering to assume operation of the county’s Colonial Heights Middle School.

School officials emphasized the term “takeover” was not applicable to either proposal.

For Colonial Heights, the city could assume operations as early as the upcoming 2013-14 school year in August. For Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee, the change might be after the 2013-14 school year, the second year of a two-year grant that provided start-up funds for IA, a science, technology, engineering and math school.

“I’m totally floored about the Colonial Heights discussion and really the Innovation Academy discussion, too,” county BOE member Robyn Ivester of Piney Flats said Friday. Her district encompasses Colonial Heights Middle, and her constituents and those of BOE Vice Chairman Jack Bales of Sullivan Gardens attend the school. Bales is also vice chairman of the IA Governing Board.

“That’s been floated around,” Bales said of “streamlining” IA operations.

Ailshie said business partners for IA have approached him about the streamlining idea, first talked about earlier this month, and the long-term viability of the school. Eastman Chemical Co., Wellmont Health System and the Domtar paper mill are the three largest and most active private business partners for the county.

Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie said the two systems can continue to work together to operate the school jointly, but that the bigger picture is the importance and success of the school.

“We’re still committed to the concept of what we set out to do,” Yennie said Friday. “For us to get bogged down in the numbers and details of the minutia and details of TVAS (Tennessee Valued Added System) is a little shortsighted.”

IA is receiving $1 million over two years in federal Race to the Top dollars funneled through Tennessee and the Battelle Memorial Institute, while East Tennessee State University got a $500,000 grant for two years to help with the school and share best practices across the region and state.

“It’s no one’s fault, but Innovation is caught in the middle,” city BOE member Betsy Cooper said. “They live in limbo lots of times.”

IA began in August of 2012 as a grades 6-7 school but is growing to grades 6-8 this fall. Plans are to grow to grades 6-12 and in 2014-15 to begin accepting students from area Tennessee systems other than Kingsport and Sullivan County.

“It’s just cumbersome,” Ailshie said of the system’s sharing and in some cases rotating oversight of the school. “It’s not a negative on Sullivan County versus us.”

For instance, curriculum was under the county system this year but the principal under the city system. That is to switch for the school year starting in August.

However, Ailshie said recently a new issue has come to light: accountability issues.

Since IA is technically not a school but a program, given the school has no state-assigned number, the student standardized test scores are reported back to base or home schools in the city — Robinson or Sevier middles — or the county — North Middle.

Ailshie said both systems are working for a resolution. As things stand now, IA student scores could increase or decrease the rankings of the base or home schools.

Likewise, since those student scores are a part of teacher evaluations, he said the IA teacher scores are tied back to base schools.

Since IA is adding related arts classes this fall instead of sending student back to base or home schools, for those teachers outside math, English/language arts and science, that means their evaluation would use schoolwide base or home school scores.

And even for teachers in the core four subjects, Ailshie said the issue is that teachers serve both city and county students, so officials are having difficulty on tracking individual teacher accountability.

In light of those and other issues, Ailshie said he has discussed the matter with Yennie, who Friday said the calculations are similar to those done for special education teachers and others with students in different classes.

Bales said he understood the Tennessee Department of Education is fine with how test scores are attributed to schools and teachers.

Ailshie said the lottery to select students for the school — split evenly with 40 students per system per grade — might still be done separately, as would funding.

Other issues would include teacher and principal pay levels, since the city overall pays teachers and administrators more than the county. Other IA employees work for either the county or city system.

“Everybody worked very cooperatively to try to get there,” said city BOE President Randy Montgomery, also chairman of the IA board. It is set to meet 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, at IA. Agenda items include holding a lottery for 2013-14, including the entire rising sixth-grade class and available slots for seventh and eighth grade.

IA is housed in the former Brookside Elementary building, a county-owned structure in the Bloomingdale community.

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