College and career readiness

Leaders highlight K-12 schools’ role in ‘Drive to 55’

Gov. Bill Haslam moderates the Drive to 55 Summit in Nashville, bringing together government, business and education leaders to discuss how to prepare students for college and work.

Emphasizing that successful careers take root in the early grades, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the state is reshaping K-12 education to align with Tennessee’s 3-year-old initiative to boost postsecondary graduation rates.

Among ongoing improvements: higher academic standards, a new assessment that will better gauge whether students are college- or career-ready, and an updated track to tie high school career technical clusters to Tennessee’s workforce needs.

“This has reorganized our vision around really what K-12 education is about: success after graduation,” McQueen said Monday at a Drive to 55 Summit in Nashville.

Speaking during a roundtable discussion moderated by Gov. Bill Haslam, McQueen said that, now more than ever, the question driving the Department of Education in behalf of students is: “How do we set you up for what success will actually look like once you walk across that stage and outside of that high school? “

In 2013, Haslam initiated “Drive to 55” to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. The policy package largely focuses on the state’s postsecondary institutions, funneling money into workforce development programs and, most famously the Tennessee Promise scholarship, which provides a pathway for Tennessee high school seniors to attend state community and technology colleges tuition-free for two years.

The initiative has reframed the conversation about all levels of education, casting school and training as the means to a healthy state economy.

McQueen outlined some of the department’s biggest challenges to increasing college readiness: providing access to rigorous classes, such as advanced placement classes and dual-enrollment courses with community colleges, that prepare students for postsecondary education; and the perception that a post-secondary education isn’t necessary in today’s economy. The commissioner said the state must send a message to its students that they can — and must — continue their education after high school.

“I continually hear when I go throughout the state that college is not for everyone,” McQueen said. “You don’t have to go and get a Ph.D.; that may not be your pathway. But going into a postsecondary program where you can get a credential, a diploma or a degree is absolutely necessary in today’s day and age, and we have to continue talking about that message.”

One of the most visible impacts of Drive to 55 on K-12 education is the expansion of a high school math program called Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support, or SAILS. The program is a joint effort of the Department of Education and community colleges to help high school seniors with low ACT scores catch up in math before they graduate, using in-person instruction and computer modules, so they do not have to take remedial courses in community college. In 2014-15 in its second year, 91 percent of participating students passed their SAILS course, meaning they should be ready for college math. Mike Krause, executive director of Drive to 55, estimates that SAILS has saved Tennessee students a collective $64 million by helping them complete postsecondary degrees on time.

McQueen announced that the Department of Education will adapt SAILS’ technology component for students taking Algebra I. “This should not just be for a select group of students. What can we learn from SAILS that can be applied to all students?” she asked.

"... A degree is absolutely necessary in today's day and age, and we have to continue talking about that message."Candice McQueen, state education commissioner

Krause lauded high school guidance counselors and volunteer mentors through Tennessee Promise who are working with high school students to encourage them to apply to college — and fill out the necessary paperwork.

This fall, in the first year of Tennessee Promise, about 15,800 students used the new program to enroll in community college or technical schools. Tennessee also boasts the most students nationally to complete the paperwork for financial aid for college — a requirement of Tennessee Promise.

“The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a horrific form, but it’s also the gateway to financial aid,” Krause said. “With the right supports, students complete the FAFSA.”

State Sen. Delores Gresham, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said a bevy of recent education reforms in Tennessee — including new academic standards, the new TNReady assessment and increased school choice — are moves in the right direction and must be sustained.

“Any loss of momentum in the education reforms we have implemented in recent years would be a real setback,” said Gresham (R-Somerville). “Above all, there has to be this relentless improvement in instruction and, again, a maintenance of a sense of urgency. There is not a moment to lose; there is not a child we want to lose.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”