All local students will be back in classes within the next two weeks, but public school administrators still are seeking answers for how to comply with some new state laws.
Directors of all three local districts say they are looking for direction from the state on a new requirement to serve students in grades 7-12 who have been suspended or expelled from regular schools in an alternative program or school if space is available.
During a work session this week, Director Brian Bell told the Alcoa Board of Education the law could essentially eliminate out-of-school suspensions. However, meeting the requirement presents challenges.
Maryville City Schools Director Mike Winstead said it looks good on the surface but raises several questions.
Blount County Schools Director Rob Britt noted the law doesn’t seem to address what schools could do if a student already in an alternative school commits a zero-tolerance offense, such as one involving a weapon or dealing drugs that otherwise would result in expulsion.
The Alcoa City Schools alternative program, the Pershing Academy of Learning, has a capacity of 16 students and usually has about eight to 13, Bell told his board.
“We’ll probably have to work out some solution if we are out of space,” he said. Bell described a possible scenario in which PAL had one open slot and a student who was suspended was sent there, but then another student is suspended and there is no vacancy. That would lead to treating the two students differently.
“I predict we’ll be full most of the year at PAL,” Bell said in a later interview. “We just don’t have the capacity.”
Although the top floor of PAL currently is vacant, Bell told the school board it would have to be made accessible to people with disabilities by adding an elevator before being used.
Winstead is interested in what the state will consider an alternative program, noting that technology already allows students to keep up with assignments when out of school.
“For us the impact is going to be on short-term suspensions,” he said, explaining that students suspended for more than 10 days in Maryville go to the city’s alternative school for at least 45 days.
The alternative program requirement is among more than five dozen state laws affecting schools that the 111th General Assembly passed this year, based on a report from the state Department of Education.
Another one for which Britt wants clarification allows a student’s parent or guardian to view photographs or video collected inside a school bus.
“I don’t object to a parent seeing the video,” he said, but it is a matter of how to protect the privacy of other students, as required under laws such as the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
CTE programs in middle schools
The state Department of Education is to identify assessments that would fulfill a new requirement to assess students’ career aptitude in grades seven or eight. Schools already have been moving to gauge students’ career interests in middle school. The school districts also are exploring options under a new state law to use state and federal funding for career and technical education (CTE) programs in middle school grades.
Maryville is offering culinary and construction classes starting in eighth grade and a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) class starting in sixth grade, and Winstead said it will be be looking at ways to continue developing programs in the lower grades.
All of BCS middle schools also have some type of STEM program already.
School districts have been updating their anti-tobacco policies to include vaping, and now state law prohibits using vaping products such as electronic cigarettes as well as smoking on public school grounds, including bleachers and other public seating. The directors said they have seen an increase in student vaping in schools, particularly at the middle school level, but had not noted a problem at sporting events. Winstead said Maryville recently changed its ticket policy so that spectators who leave the stadium for a smoke break just outside have to pay admission again to re-enter.
Schools received a one-year delay in a new requirement that students in kindergarten through fifth grade receive 60 minutes of physical education a week under a certified PE teacher.
During the work session with Alcoa’s board, Bell questioned why some of that time couldn’t be under the supervision of the classroom teacher. “That’s the way it was when I went to school,” he said.
BCS has estimated that it will cost about $373,000 to add six new PE teachers to meet that requirement at its 14 elementary schools.
Winstead said some of the legislation that passed this year was made better, with legislators apparently aware of pushing too many requirements on teachers.
One addition is that teachers must receive one-time training on the detection, intervention, prevention and treatment of human trafficking in which the victim is a child.
The new law also requires schools to include instruction on human trafficking detection and prevention in their family life curriculum. The local directors are waiting to see what video the state may approve to show in classes such as wellness.
“Other than the vouchers, it was a pretty successful year,” Winstead said, referring to passage of the governor’s “Education Savings Account” plan.
While the local directors said they understand the state’s move to go back to paper and pencil tests under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program after problems in recent years with online TNReady assessments, they also noted that online testing had gone well at the high school level.
Since MCS implemented its iReach program several years ago, providing a computer for every student, Winstead said, “some of our high school students haven’t taken many paper and pencil tests.”