By Sally Absher

By Sally Absher

Dr. Candice McQueen, who was sworn in as Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education in January, was in Knoxville last week. She visited Pond Gap and South Knoxville Elementary, two of Knoxville’s Community Schools before addressing a group of educators, community leaders, and school administrators at the Downtown Marriott. McQueen’s visit was sponsored in part by the Great Schools Partnership, Knox County Education Association and the League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County.

Community Schools, operated by the Great Schools Partnership, are an initiative that aligns community resources to improve academic outcomes, attendance, student behavior, family and community engagement, health and safety, school climate and neighborhood well-being. This concept has shown promise everywhere it has been incorporated, and is an excellent alternative to vouchers and charter schools.

Buzz Thomas, President of Great Schools Partnership, introduced Dr. McQueen by saying she “may be the most qualified person in the state of Tennessee to be the Commissioner of Education.” He notes that she began her career as a classroom teacher, teaching in both public and private elementary and middle schools. She also served as a college professor and department chair before being named Dean of Lipscomb College of Education in 2008.

McQueen’s presentation was titled “Taking Tennessee Schools from Good to Great.” Like most education administrators, she is enamored with data.  “You have to have data that tells you where you need to go… I have been amazed at the amount of data at my fingertips in the Department of Education. I’m sure Knox County Schools has that too.”

The data show: less than half of all 3rd graders proficient in reading; less than half of all 8th graders proficient in reading; less than 40% of all high school students proficient in English III; almost 64% off first time freshmen in TN community colleges took at least one remedial or development course (fall 2013); and TN ranks in the bottom half of all states on the Nation’s Report Card or NAEP.

She cited improvements Tennessee has made recently, including: fastest improving state in 4th and 8th grade NAEP scores; consistent gains on TCAP every year since 2010; fastest growing graduation rate of any state; and improvement in the ACT statewide average from 19.0 to 19.3.

She said today many Tennessee students struggle in the early years after high school. Of 72,865 high school freshmen in 2007, 10,545 students (14%) did not graduate from high school. 22,334 students (31%) graduated from high school to enter the workforce with an average annual salary of $9,030. 40,235 students (55%) enrolled in postsecondary education, but only 58% of those were still enrolled one year later.

By 2025, she said, 55% of all new jobs will require postsecondary education. She cites the combination of our progress to date, the changing world, and the opportunity of Tennessee Promise (which her PowerPoint presentation actually showed as “Grades 13-14”) as the call to reorganize around a new vision: Success After Graduation.

The TN Department of Education has established 4 Goals to meet this new vision:

Goal 1: Tennessee will continue its rapid improvement and rank in the top half of states by 2019

Goal 2: Tennessee’s high school seniors will improve faster than those in any other state

Goal 3: The average ACT score in Tennessee will be a 21, allowing more students to earn HOPE scholarships

Goal 4: A majority of high school graduates will go on to earn a certificate, diploma, or degree

McQueen said that to meet these goals, TN DOE has established five strategic priorities, and five action teams to clarify these priorities through the strategic planning process to produce a Draft Strategic Plan.

Members of the audience were invited to ask questions, which included the following:

Q. How do you reconcile increased graduation rates as a measure of high school success with students needing developmental courses in community college?  A. Tennessee does not have full alignment of high school graduation requirements and entry requirements for postsecondary education. This is part of the strategic goal around high school and postsecondary work. It will be part of the strategic plan.

Q. How will TN respond to movement towards total inclusion for Special Education students? A. Based on personal experience with having a profoundly handicapped brother, McQueen will “work diligently to implement RTI at the level promised,” including inclusion in core classes as much as we potentially can. She said her brother “could have functioned 100 times better if he had been incorporated with other students throughout the school.”

Q. What is your vision for Charter Schools/Vouchers in Tennessee? A. The governor and administration (the DOE) would be for opportunities to ensure that the bottom 5% schools with our lowest performing kids and most disadvantaged backgrounds have opportunities that they might otherwise not have.

In her closing remarks, Dr. McQueen praised our Community Schools, saying she learned a lot that she would take back and think about. She added it is one the most successful ways to think about Community Schools that she has seen.