By Sally Absher

Last Thursday the Disparities in Educational Outcomes (DEO) Task Force shared its draft recommendations and gathered additional community input and feedback.

The Task Force is comprised of business, community and faith-based members. The group was formed in November 2014, in response to a complaint filed with the U.S. Dept. of Education Office of Civil Rights against Knox County Schools. They were tasked with recommending strategies to address disproportions in academic achievement and discipline outcomes in the Knox County Schools that might be correlated with income, race, language and/or disability.

The meeting was a follow up to the December 2015 community meeting, where students, families, educators and community members shared opinions, triumphs, and challenges with regard to their observations and personal experiences with disparities, discipline and education. This input was used by the Task Force to formulate the recommendations presented last week.

Four major focus areas were identified: training, programs, policies and practices, and personnel. The overarching need for improved communication and accountability was also discussed.

Training: Provide ongoing Cultural Competency training for all KCS stall (certified and classified); Provide ongoing Classroom Management Training and ongoing professional development to provide high-quality, differentiated core instruction to teachers; Provide School Resource Officer (SRO) training to effectively deal with the social, emotional and mental health issues of students; and Provide school-wide training based on specific needs identified through school data.

Programs: Expand Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Practices to all KCS schools; Provide appropriate resources and responses for students experiencing/who have experienced personal trauma; Develop and implement student mentoring programs and Student Advisory Councils; and Expand community, behavioral, and mental health supports through the Community Schools initiative and other community partnerships.

Procedures: Review/propose revisions to BOE discipline policies, practices, and procedures; Track/report all discipline, arrest, and academic data individually by school; Partner with local law enforcement to reduce juvenile arrests in schools; Create a Stakeholder Bill of Rights inclusive of students, parents, teachers, and administrators; Ensure culturally responsive classroom instruction; Match every secondary student with at least one caring adult; and Enhance family and community engagement.

Personnel: Enhance minority recruiting efforts; Develop activities to attract/support/retain minority and male educators; establish minority professional mentoring and networking activities; Explore opportunities to increase the number of school counselors, social workers, behavior liaisons, and other support personnel in schools; and Ensure that struggling students have access to highly effective teachers..

Communication: Develop a comprehensive communication plan to Regularly report progress; Provide regular and ongoing opportunities for engaging community dialogue; Engage the community in various aspects of the work; and Expand non-English speaking parent/community access to school/district information.

Accountability: The DEO Task Force will transition into a Steering and Oversight Committee to ensure effective implementation, communicate progress, refine efforts, and engage others. A clear and strategic implementation plan with detailed timelines, specific expected outcomes, and milestone reports will be developed, and an Ombudsman role will be created to: Help KCS families navigate school and community organizations/systems, Serve as a liaison in the implantation of the Task Force Recommendations, Report directly to the Superintendent, and Present quarterly to the Board of Education.

As the meeting concluded, Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas was introduced. He gave a rather self-aggrandizing speech in response to some hecklers, touting his experiences working as a pastor for an African American parish in New Orleans, and getting rid of the Rebel flag in Maryville Schools as proof of his commitment to support the recommendations of the task force. He described the recommendations as “mission critical” to attaining “excellence for every child.”