Students Set to Return to School as COVID Cases Spike

The head of the Knox County Education Association (KCEA) is calling on that district to begin school this semester in a hybrid or virtual model as COVID-19 cases spike in Knox County and across the state.

WBIR has more:

The Knox County Education Association called for the county’s schools to start the semester in the “red zone” with no in-person learning, or with an alternating hybrid schedule where students alternate in-person days, the group’s president said Monday. 

“We can’t sacrifice lives over politics and we need to do what’s right and what’s best for everyone,” Tanya Coats told 10News. “Educating kids is a priority for us, but we just need to do it remotely from home.” 

The push in Knox County to move to remote learning comes at time when new cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee and in Knox County are increasing.

As WBIR notes, since December 11th:

. . . the county’s health department has reported in excess of 10 thousand more positive tests and more than 100 new deaths tied to the virus. The number of active cases has increased by 62 percent. 

In fact, Tennessee achieved “best in the world” status for COVID transmission rate (the highest rate) in December and the entire state is currently identified as a COVID-19 “hot spot” according to Tennessean reporter Bret Kelman:

Some districts have already announced they will open virtually this semester for at least a few days up to a few weeks. With numbers surging and a post-Holiday spike expected, it’s not clear when conditions will be safe for in-person learning.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee has called a “not so special” session of the legislature to address the issue. That meeting will begin on January 19th.

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Kirby Endorsed in Knox School Board Race

In a race for a seat on the Knox County School Board, the Knox County Political Action Committee for Education (K-PACE) has endorsed Hannah Kirby, per a Facebook post.

While Kirby is a staunch supporter of public schools, her two opponents for the seat have both expressed support for school vouchers.

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Voucher Backers Seek Knox School Board Seat

Two supporters of Gov. Bill Lee’s unconstitutional school voucher scheme are seeking seats on the Knox County School Board, CompassKnox reports. Here’s more on the three-person race that includes two voucher supporters:

Rob Gray

Gray supports Gov. Bill Lee’s effort to introduce school vouchers into Tennessee. Lee’s Education Savings Account program, which would only operate in Nashville and Memphis, has been blocked for the moment by a court ruling. Gray said competition for public dollars from private schools would force public schools to be better.

“You’ve got to be innovative,” Gray said. “Competition just makes you develop a better product.”

Betsy Henderson

On vouchers, Henderson said, “I am for school choice. And I think that comes in many forms, whether it’s through vouchers, through charter schools. You know, my family got the choice to live anywhere in Knoxville that we wanted to. And I think that every child should have the choice of where they go to school, or the school that meets their needs.”

It appears Hannah Kirby is the only candidate running who is unequivocally a supporter of public schools.

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COVID’s Impact on School Budgets

It’s being felt in Knox County, as the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports:

Knox County Schools’ budget is expected to be down by $4.4 million for next school year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Around a third of the school district’s budget comes from sales tax revenue, which has dropped significantly because of COVID-19, said Ron McPherson, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer. In total, the district had to cut about $10 million in order to balance the budget, he said.

The projected budget for the 2021 fiscal year is $503.8 million, down from $506.7 million for the 2020 fiscal year, Superintendent Bob Thomas announced last week at a virtual community budget meeting. The school board will vote on the proposed budget on Wednesday.

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Knox County Group Pushes for School Funding

From a Press Release:


This next school year will have huge challenges: many families have had their lives upended, kids will come back to school anxious, even traumatized, and teachers will be stressed. Given the central role
Knox County School staff has played during this pandemic, it’s vital that we fully fund the system to deliver the best possible educational outcomes. Our students deserve nothing less.


In addition, more than 900 additional students are anticipated next year. Additional students require additional resources and staff, and the Knox County Education Coalition has worked with the schools to identify needs that are in excess of the current budget.


After a few weeks of virtual learning, most parents realize the value that Knox County Schools provide. In fact, during the coronavirus crisis, KCS educators and employees have proven to be a vital resource for students and their families by providing meals and emotional support. That support will be needed more than ever in August.


Staff, materials among additional needs


From guidance counselors, social workers and nurses to textbooks and computers KCEC has identified several gaps that should be addressed in the 2020/2021 KCS budget.


Our children’s schools have too few guidance counselors, social workers and nurses. While we are fairly close to the national standard for school nurses, the system is woefully understaffed with regard to social workers and guidance counselors. The system needs to add more than 200 professionals in those areas to reach the national standard.

Our most vulnerable children have been the most affected by the school shutdown. The district works hard to address disparities and has identified the need for additional trainers, special education teachers and school culture staff to close achievement gaps.


The system needs to purchase language arts textbooks aligned with current standards and maintain existing books. Additional funding is required to provide and maintain personal computers for student use, but even the projected needs would not get the district close to one device per student.

These are not our only needs. We need equitable pay to retain our teachers, bus drivers, custodians and support staff.

The Knox County Education Coalition consists of several community organizations dedicated to supporting public education. These organizations include Justice Knox; Knoxville Branch of the NAACP; Knox County Education Association; Kindred Futures; Latino Student Success Coalition; League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County; Stop School Push Out; Students, Parents and Educators Across Knox County and What’s the Big I.D.E.A.?Please follow the coalition on Facebook and Twitter for more information.

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Knox County’s Amy Frogge

Betty Bean has the story of an unlikely two-term winner on the Knox County School Board, Jennifer Owen.

Owen won re-election on Tuesday night by a large margin despite being outspent, reports Bean:


Sure, she had devoted volunteers and steady support from educators, but her opponent, John Meade, co-president of the Central High School Foundation, was rocking big ticket contributions from the top tier of the local GOP donor base and dispatching bales of direct mail to district mailboxes while Owen only sent out two mailers, one of which she paid for with $2,000 borrowed from her husband, Robert. Her only other large contribution was $2,500 from the K-PACE, the Knox County Education Association political action committee.

As Bean continues, she notes that Owen is known for speaking truth to power. She takes principled stands, even if they are sometimes unpopular. She’s not at all afraid to make the establishment uncomfortable. She asks tough questions. She’s unrelenting in her advocacy for public education.

Her story is not unlike that of Nashville’s Amy Frogge, now a two-term school board member. Frogge was outspent by large margins in both of her campaigns, and both times she won big. She challenges city leaders and state policymakers and she’s relentless.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for politicians everywhere: Stay true to your principles, fight hard, and do what’s right – even in the face of well-funded, polished interests who claim to be “for the kids.”

Whatever the case, Owen joins Frogge as someone who looks at the powerful interests in her way and nevertheless, persists.

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The Ghost of Big Mac

As races for Knox County School Board come into focus, the ghost of former Director of Schools Jim McIntyre (Big Mac) looms large. Betty Bean has more in KnoxToday:


Four years ago this week, Knox County Schools Superintendent James McIntyre called a press conference and announced his resignation. The first reaction was shock: who walks away from a $227,256 a year job? Then he answered the question himself:

A superintendent who can count to five.


“The current political environment has become increasingly dysfunctional… The focus of the conversation has all too often become about me… There is a new school board essentially coming in on Sept. 1. There will be several new members,” McIntyre said. “The new school board deserves to choose the leader that they want to have in place.”

Bean details the impact of McIntyre’s tenure on the board and political climate and notes there are at least rumors of an attempted Big Mac Attack that would result in the former director returning to his old post.

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Students Will Suffer

Knox County School Board member Jennifer Owen offers an inside view of how Governor Haslam’s “listening tour” went down in Knoxville.

Her conclusion gets to the heart of why Tennessee education policy is where it is today:

While some of our legislators, in this ELECTION SEASON, are suddenly declaring that they disagree with all of this, we know that they have not stopped it, after EIGHT YEARS.  And if they haven’t stopped this after EIGHT YEARS, they sure as hell aren’t going to stop it just because there is a new governor in town.

As long as we keep these legislators, Tennessee students will continue to suffer, while parents, teachers, and the public are lied to, regarding trumped up visions of “successes” used to make the governor look like he has actually done something while in office.

If we keep doing the same thing, we’ll keep getting the same results. If we keep sending lawmakers to Nashville who support TNReady or get behind minor changes around the edges, we won’t see anything new in 2019 or beyond.

Owen was in the meeting in Knoxville and her full description of how it went down is worth a read.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Stand Up, Fight Back

Just days after the state’s two largest school districts sent a letter to Governor Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen expressing “no confidence in TNReady, the school board in the third largest district (Knox County) voted 8-1 to have their Director of Schools send a letter expressing “no confidence” in the Pre-K/Kindergarten portfolio process and in the Tennessee Department of Education as a whole.

The move comes after a study session last week in which board members characterized the TN DOE’s administration of portfolios and of teacher evaluation as an “abject failure.”

While the DOE blames the problems with scores on this year’s Pre-K/K portfolios on teachers, individual teachers continue to provide evidence they followed every instruction and guideline from DOE and yet still faced sections of their portfolio submissions that were not scored at all. When a section was not scored, teachers saw their score for that section default to a “1”, the lowest possible score.

I’ve reported before on the discrepancies between rubrics provided to teachers and those provided reviewers. Reviewers received rubrics reflecting more difficult standards, meaning teachers who complied with the rubrics they were given likely lost ground in the final scoring.

I’ve since talked with teachers who indicated they received scores of “5” on three sections and a score of “1” on another. While this created a composite score of “4,” it’s not a logical outcome. It’s highly unlikely that a teacher who receives the top score in three categories would then receive the lowest possible score on the fourth.

As I learn more about this issue, it seems clear that many teachers had submissions that simply weren’t scored at all. The problems in May and June with submission review indicate the state was ill-prepared to execute the scoring of this year’s portfolios.

Now, the TDOE faces significant criticism from the state’s three largest districts in terms of how it handles both student assessment and teacher evaluation. It will be interesting to see if additional districts follow suit.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

More TNReady Fallout

As the state continues to experience challenges with TNReady implementation, districts are speaking out. In October, the Williamson County school board adopted resolutions asking for changes to how the state will assign letter grades to schools and asking that TNReady scores not be included in report cards for students in grades 3-5.

This week, Knox County adopted three resolutions relevant to the current testing troubles.

All three were sponsored by Board Member Amber Rountree.

One addresses the proposed letter grading of individual schools and asks:

The Knox County Board of Education hereby urges the Senate to amend legislation SB 535 in the upcoming session by assigning a school level designation that aligns with the district designation, rather than assigning a letter grade to each school; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, The Knox County Board of Education hereby urges Governor Haslam, the State Board of Education, and the Tennessee General Assembly to consider a moratorium in using any school or district designation based on data obtained via the TNReady assessment which was administered in School Year 2016-17.

Another relates to the use of TNReady data for student grades and teacher evaluation:

The Knox County Board of Education opposes the use of TCAP data for any percentage of teacher evaluations and student grades for School Year 2017-2018 and urges the General Assembly and the State Board of Education to provide a one-year waiver, as was previously provided for School Year 2015-2016.

And then there’s one similar to Williamson’s request to exclude TNReady data from report cards for students in grades 3-5:

WHEREAS, the Knox County Board of Education submits student scores on the Tennessee comprehensive assessment program’s grades 3-5 achievement test scores should not comprise a percentage of the student’s final grade for the spring semester in the areas of mathematics, reading/language arts, science and social studies.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED BY THE KNOX COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION AS FOLLOWS: The Knox County Board of Education hereby urges the Tennessee General Assembly amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-1-617 to remove the requirement of using any portion of the Tennessee comprehensive assessment program scores as a percentage of the students in grades 3-5 spring semester grade

 

No word yet on a response to these two districts speaking out on the proper use of TNReady data.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport