Education commissioner visits Blount County’s districts
By Matthew Stewart | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The state education commissioner’s listening tour rolled Friday into Blount County.
When Kevin Huffman assumed the post last year, he pledged to visit all of the state’s 136 school districts within two years. The commissioner visited Cumberland County, Alcoa, Blount County and Maryville City schools, bringing his total to 129 school districts.
Blount County’s three school districts greeted Huffman in unique ways.
Alcoa City Schools welcomed Huffman into a laid-back, congenial setting complete with refreshments. Director of Schools Brian Bell also presented the commissioner with an Alcoa baseball cap.
Blount County Schools presented a more formal, dignified appearance, positioning Huffman at a podium, flanked by state and national flags and surrounded by students, teachers, administrators, parents and elected officials.
Maryville City Schools invited the commissioner to meet with a small group of system- and school-level administrators in the Central Office’s board room.
During the meetings, Huffman invited audience members to share successes and concerns. He also explained the state Department of Education’s priorities and vision.
“My goal is to be the fastest-improving state in the country by 2015,” Huffman said, addressing Alcoa City Schools. The state will measure improvement in terms of ACT, National Assessment of Educational Progress and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers scores.
“Someone is going to be the fastest-improving state in the country,” he said. “I think it could be us.”
In 2014-15, Tennessee will transition to the Common Core State Standards.
The state Department of Education provided training for 13,000 math teachers this summer, Huffman said. Officials have also hired 200 coaches who have received exemplary results to provide guidance to their peers.
The department will provide reading/language arts training next summer, he said.
Educators should expect to face challenges in the near future, though.
Huffman told Blount County’s audience that online testing will be a statewide challenge. “I’m excited about it, but there will be some growing pains.”
Virginia has conducted online testing for almost 10 years, he said. The Virginia Department of Education has advised Huffman to expect challenges for several years.
The state Department of Education also plans to shift its focus from compliance to instruction, Huffman said. “We’ve been heavy on compliance and light on flexibility and instruction.”
He told Maryville’s audience that curricula in several subject areas, such as reading in the middle grades, aren’t driving improvement.
The commissioner also noted problems in special education, statewide. “We’re seeing success when people focus on individuals and maximizing their potential. We need to provide support for our students with disabilities.”
Dr. John Campbell, Alcoa’s director of curriculum and instruction, asked Huffman if the state Department of Education would be willing to offer more flexibility to school districts. The commissioner advised Campbell that he’d like to be able to offer more flexibility but he’s not legally allowed to do so, at this time.
Last year, the Tennessee General Assembly considered a bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville, that would have given Tennessee’s education commissioner the power to waive state laws to grant public schools more flexibility. State legislators took no action on the bill.
“I’d like to be able to offer more flexibility,” Huffman said. “We’ve set ambitious goals. We’re measuring those ambitious goals. We’re holding you accountable for those goals. So, I’d like to offer some flexibility on the ways that you choose to meet them.”
The commissioner also wants to support educators. “I want our high-performing teachers to feel loved, valued and rewarded for their work. When we identify low-performing teachers, I want us to be swarming them with PD (professional development) and helping them grow (as educators).”
Pleased with visit
Local officials were pleased to speak with Huffman.
“We appreciate the commissioner’s visit,” Bell said. “He answered some really good questions posed by our staff. We all came out better informed about his priorities, visions and what part we can play in it.”
“It was quite an honor and privilege to have Commissioner Huffman here,” said Blount County Director of Schools Rob Britt. “We’re excited to engage him about the good things going on in our system, as well as our challenges.”
“We’re honored that Commissioner Huffman took the time to visit,” said Maryville Director of Schools Stephanie Thompson. “I hope we get the chance to meet with him in the future, as he expressed an interest in doing. We truly appreciate his interest and time, because he’s a very, very busy person.”
Huffman also appreciated the opportunity to meet with representatives of Blount County’s three school districts.
“It’s very useful for me to visit school districts and hear from teachers, administrators and parents,” Huffman said. “Needs differ from community to community, and needs can differ within communities. Alcoa, Blount County and Maryville can have different needs, which is why it’s really important to go everywhere and get the full range of issues.”