As members of the Tennessee General Assembly meet today, Jan. 19, for a special session on education issues, most of Gov. Bill Lee’s proposals have support from Maryville City Schools Director Mike Winstead, with one notable exception.

Asked about Lee’s proposals for dealing with learning losses from time out of school during the pandemic, Winstead told the Maryville City Council during a retreat Jan. 15, “I’m going to scream really loud about what we maybe should be doing and not be doing with that.”

The part of the proposed Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act that bothers Winstead would require schools starting in the 2022-23 school year to retain third graders who don’t score “on track” or “mastered” in English language arts (ELA) on state tests.

“It’s about keeping the kids in third grade so that they don’t take the fourth grade NAEP test so that your NAEP scores look better and you have a ‘Mississippi miracle,’” he said, referring to a dramatic rise in that state’s fourth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also know as “The Nation’s Report Card,” which critics link to Mississippi’s high retention rate for third graders.

“There’s a lot of ways to raise your test scores, and one way is to just make sure that kids that can’t pass it don’t take it,” Winstead said.

To pass that test in third grade, he said, a student would have to be on track to score a 22 on the ACT college admissions exam later.

In 2019, only 36.9% of third graders scored “on track” or “mastered” in ELA on the TNReady assessments.

Winstead told the City Council that he would encourage legislators to sit down and read with a third grader who scores in the 50th percentile and then decide if that child should be required to attend summer school.

“It’s a misguided approach, but we’re going to throw millions and millions of dollars at that,” he said. “We just need to scale it down, laser it to the kids who need the help, back here at the 20th and 30th percentile, who are not on track to be successful in life. Put the money there, and we’ll see some growth there.”

The same bill would require public schools to provide summer camps in 2021 and 2022 for grades one through eight, and he said, “I’m fine with that.”

Lee also has said he hopes to include a teacher pay raise in the special session, and Winstead put that into perspective. Last year Lee’s plan for a pay raise was pulled back because of the expected economic hit from COVID-19.

Winstead explained that if the state passes what it calls a 4% raise under the Basic Education Program funding, that would provide about half a million dollars to Maryville City Schools. The true cost of giving all Maryville’s employees a 4% raise would be about $1.4 million, since the BEP funding formula doesn’t calculate all staff members. For example, it would count only five of Maryville’s 15 counselors.

Enrollment up

Maryville is one of only 16 districts across the state that didn’t see a drop in enrollment this year, according to Winstead, and he supports a plan to keep state funding level for the next school year.

Overall, Tennessee’s public schools saw nearly a 3% decline in enrollment in the 2020-21 school year, Winstead said.

He explained that the traditional funding plan could cost schools $130 million, but he expects most of those students to return next year, so a one-year “hold harmless” on state funding makes sense.

Maryville wasn’t immune from the impact of parental choices during the pandemic, though. Winstead said 209 students zoned for the city district chose home schooling this year, up from 95 in a typical year.

“I will go out on a limb and say we will see our steepest increase in enrollment next year that we’ve probably seen in 20 years,” Winstead told the City Council.

He’s estimating 200-250 more students, an increase of 4%-5% compared with growth that usually averages 1.5%.

Most of the families that chose home schooling for the first time this year already have told principals they will be back next year, the director said. “It’s a one-year thing,” he said. “They’re coming back.”

Some families also delayed sending students to kindergarten.

Winstead said the district is seeing growth from both new development in areas such as Morganton Road and from younger families moving into older neighborhoods.

Bottleneck

During the council retreat, Winstead also reviewed the school district’s long-term plan for increasing school capacity, noting that he expects classroom space to be tight at the junior high next year.

The plan would expand Maryville High School to move ninth graders back to the campus and move seventh grade into what is now the junior high. Later the district plans to add two classrooms to each grade level at Sam Houston Elementary.

The city recently bought property on Cunningham Street adjacent to the high school, and Winstead said the leases on apartments there are up in March and demolition is expected this summer.

Adding about 35 classrooms to the high school will raise the enrollment capacity from about 1,550 to 2,100.

Winstead said he’d like to have the expansions at the high school and junior high done by the beginning of the 2026-27 school year. Construction would take about 18 months, he told the council.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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