Watch: Tennessee Education Commissioner on Maury County Schools
Tennessee Education Commissioner on Maury County Schools offers her view on Maury County Public Schools during a visit to Whitthorne Middle School.
Mike Brehm, The Daily Herald
Tennessee Education Commission Penny Schwinn rolled through Maury County Tuesday morning as part of her summer bus tour throughout the state.
The stop is one of her last on the “Accelerating TN” tour, visiting 50 school districts across the state aimed at recognizing summer learning programs, including programs aimed at counteracting learning loss during the pandemic.
Schwinn, who has served in the role since January 2019, stopped at Whitthorne Middle School in Columbia to visit two summer school classes.
During the visit Tuesday morning, Schwinn assisted 14-year-old Emily Vance as she reviewed multiplication with positive and negative numbers. She also shared a desk with Ella Swartz and Brooklyn Mckissack, both 12, while they worked through a reading assignment on reasoning and critical thinking skills.
“I am seeing students who are excited and engaged at being in summer camp, and I am seeing teachers who have tons of energy,” Schwinn said before hopping back on the bus to visit schools in Williamson and Davidson counties.
The stop at the campus marks her second visit to the county within the year, following a March visit to Battle Creek Elementary School..
Summer learning in Maury County
In Maury County, more than $1.8 million was approved to support summer programs, targeted at improving reading and math skills.
“We have hosted summer camps before but never on the scale that we did this year,” said Drew Norman, a history teacher at Columbia Central High School, who oversees the school district’s summer programs.
From June 7 through July 2, the school system’s learning loss and bridge camps are held from Monday through Thursday, while STAR Summer Camps are held on Fridays. STREAM mini-camps also offer additional project-based learning in mathematics and English Language Arts.
“Once things got rolling, it’s almost like a regular school year, but with smaller classes and more one-on-one time with teachers,” Norman said. “It has been an opportunity to get students to really enjoy school and experience the attention and fun that learning can be. Most of the site directors and teachers that I talk to think there has been a lot of growth in students. Until we have test scores, we can’t measure that but it seems that it has been very beneficial to students.”
More than 190 of the school district’s educators volunteered to work with students during the special summer session, which is optional for students.
“Everyone is coming together to wrap their arms around our schools and make sure kids are ready for next school year,” Schwinn said.
MCPS administrators said the session will provide a baseline of achievement, allowing educators to implement educational interventions to best help students overcome any learning losses.
“When you have summer programs like this, the small group sizes really personalize attention, and you see differentiation so students can get what they need when they need it,” Schwinn said. “That type of support of the individual learner and a real focus on students — I think that is going to make a big difference.”
Making reading a top priority
As part of the tour, Schwinn and the department is promoting its Reading 360 initiative using approximately $60 million of one-time federal COVID-19 relief funding and $40 million in federal grant funding to invest in optional reading resources and supports at no cost to the state or districts.
The program provides optional grants and resources to help more Tennessee students develop strong phonics-based reading skills by supporting districts, teachers and families.
It includes the At-Home Decodable Book Series, offering packs of seven decodable booklets that contain more than 20 stories to help elementary school students practice phonics and develop strong reading skills.
Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, joined Schwinn on the tour.
“This is going to be a ripple effect that we are going to have to overcome for these next 12 years of education,” said Cepicky, who serves as the chairman of the state House’s Education Instruction Subcommittee.
“This year of COVID, we saw our students go remote, and we all know that is not the best environment for them to be able to learn but with the summer schools, we are hoping we can mitigate that loss. And we are hearing tremendous results from across the state.”
Cepicky agreed that the program’s small class sizes are key to students finding success in the program.
“Commission Schwinn coming down shows her commitment to education in Tennessee,” Cepicky said. “That is what we expect from our commissioner. We look forward to working with her in the General Assembly and the Education Committees in both the House and the Senate to move toward being No. 1 in the country.”
Maury County students lag behind in classroom achievement
Even before COVID-19, Maury County pupils were struggling to keep up with their peers academically across the state.
Despite the improvements in recent years, MCPS earned the state’s lowest ranking in the categories of literacy, numeracy and social studies.
The Tennessee Department of Education’s 2018-19 report card, the most recent one issued by the state, shows 24.9% of students were proficient in reading, while 23.5% of students were proficient in math.
The district’s achievement success rate, 24.4% in 2018-19, is significantly below the state average of 36.4%.
That year, MCPS received an overall ranking of Level 1 through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, which measures student growth each year.
Maury was one of seven counties that fell in the bottom 5% percent of all districts across the state. These districts have been designated as “In Need of Improvement” along with Cocke, Hancock and Shelby counties,Humboldt City and the Achievement School District in Shelby County.
More than a quarter of Maury County’s students, or 26%, are economically disadvantaged, according to the state report card.
Schwinn said she sees MCPS is taking an opportunity to leap forward in the academic performance of its students.
“We also know the district is participating in a lot of professional development and support, and I think that is really going to move the needle,” Schwinn said.
The school district’s participation in summer programs just a piece of long-term academic improvement in the district.
“We are the only state that is going to be offering summer programs at this level, so we have been thrilled to see how personalized it has been at every district,” Schwinn said. “I think we know that COVID-19 impacted all of us differently. This is a great opportunity for kids to get extra time so we are ready for next school year. … I am very excited by what I am seeing.”
Reach Mike Christen at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @MikeChristenCDH.